Port Authority is preparing to boost its fares for some riders and eliminate transfer fees for ConnectCard users. Many advocates and transit users are weighing in publicly on the changes, including the Fair Fares for a Full Recovery Coalition, a conglomerate of community groups calling for reduced or free fares for low-income riders.
Port Authority is saying that the estimated $5 million per year it would take to pay for the program is cost-prohibitive but that it is interested in finding a solution to make the reductions a reality.
The answer could rest in stimulus funding, for the short term, and a combination of endowment funding and employer subsidized rides over the longer term.
Public transit exists to ensure that citizens of all stripes and income levels have safe, reliable and affordable transportation in the metro area. Good public transit serves not just those who ride, but those who breathe the air and traverse the road system. The fewer the vehicles on the road, the better the air quality. The fewer the vehicles on the road, the less wear and tear on the system.
In short, public transit is an investment in the public good.
The coalition is pushing for a program with a fare structure that already works. The group proposes that fares be reduced or eliminated for riders who qualify for Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, typically issued to low-income families who receive food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
These families and individuals often are in need of public transportation. A transit 2019 survey by Bike Pittsburgh indicates that workers below the poverty line have become increasingly reliant on public transportation over the last decade. Cities that have eliminated fares for some riders have seen significant jumps in usage.
Dropping fares also could help low-income residents travel to and from work, potentially stimulating the local economy as it emerges from the pandemic. Numerous jobs in various industries are going unfilled. More commuting options could help close the gaps.
For these reasons, the authority should reach into its allocated federal stimulus money: $200 million. But the Federal Transit Administration has not explicitly clarified whether this is an appropriate use of stimulus funds and is reviewing the issue. In the meantime, public transportation providers in San Francisco and Richmond, Va., already are using stimulus money for fare reduction. Port Authority should follow their lead.
This is not a panacea, however. Even if Port Authority uses the federal stimulus money for a free or reduced fare program, launching a $5 million program with nonrenewable funding poses questions of sustainability over the long run. Using the stimulus money now gives time for a more permanent fix. Local nonprofits should step in here. Pittsburgh is blessed with a wealth of foundations that champion exactly these sorts of enrichment measures for low-income residents, measures with the potential for far-reaching impact on everything from air quality to job stimulation to equity in employment. The price tag is not insurmountable for these organizations. Also, employers with jobs to fill should work with the authority and other employers on a program to subsidize rides for prospective employees who need them.
This is the time for bold creativity.
Riders who don’t benefit from the program may question the idea of some people getting a free pass while prices go up for other users. This is shortsighted. Those who are able to pay should do so, but transit is a public utility, and those who cannot pay should not be barred from riding. This is a social trade-off: Those who have more will subsidize those who have less because the public benefits are clear.