Bus riders pressure Port Authority to equalize fare structure.
Port Authority bus riders who object to higher fares for cash customers chanted a different holiday message Friday.
Sue Scanlon, a Port Authority bus driver for 18 years, said she sees it all too often: female riders, often single mothers, paying cash to ride the bus multiple times to drop children off at day care, then going to work and repeating the trip at the end of the day.
For cash customers, that’s $11 in fares compared with $7 for customers who can afford the upfront fee to use a prepaid ConnectCard. That’s why she spoke out Friday in favor of equalizing fares for cash customers at a Downtown rally aimed at the Port Authority Board. Pittsburghers for Public Transit and Just Harvest organized the protest and presented petitions with about 2,500 signatures in support of changing the fare structure to the board.
Authority CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said she
understands the concerns of riders who say that even if low-income passengers could manage the upfront costs, the agency doesn’t have ConnectCard vendors in poor neighborhoods. The agency is working on solutions, such as a mobile app and ConnectCard upgrades to grant discounts for regular riders after they pay the equivalent of a weekly or monthly pass, she said. She met this week with the ConnectCard provider to see if the company can adjust the program to grant discounts after riders reach monthly pass minimums.
The authority changed its fare system two years ago, before Ms. Kelleman was hired in January, to charge a flat $2.50 fare for ConnectCard users and $2.75 for cash customers instead of a tiered system based on distance traveled. Those changes also set cash transfers at $1 for ConnectCard users but requires cash customers to pay a full second fare if they need a second ride to reach their destination.
The goal was to encourage riders to use ConnectCards, but it created an unintended consequence for low-income, cash customers who pay higher fares, advocates say.
Ms. Kelleman called the comments from 18 riders at the board meeting “very good feedback” but conceded the authority probably won’t make changes quickly enough for those groups.
“We are certainly looking at ways to get as many people riding our system as possible,” Ms. Kelleman said. “We’re all in on anything that makes our system more equitable for everybody.”
The agency is reviewing proposals from mobile app providers and may have a prototype to test next summer. It also plans to hire a fare consultant to review its entire system and recommend changes and in the interim is looking at ways to make ConnectCards available in more neighborhoods, Ms. Kelleman said.
The issue could create a financial dilemma for the authority. Ms. Kelleman said about 2 percent of riders use transfers, generating revenue of just under $2 million annually.
“It’s under $2 million at this point, but $2 million is still $2 million,” she said.
At the rally outside the T station on Wood Street, several dozen riders carried signs with slogans such as “Buses are our lifeline,” “Same fares for everyone” and “Transit shouldn’t break our bank.” They also repeated chants such as, “One trip, two trips, three trips four, why are poor people paying more?”
Helen Gerhardt, an organizer for Just Harvest, said she knows home health care workers who travel throughout the county by bus and work 60 hours a week, but they have to pay higher cash bus fares and don’t have money for healthy food.
“It’s poor people who are bearing the brunt of [higher cash fees],” she said.
That’s a way of life for Teireik Williams, a South Oakland resident who works at Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab. Because his neighborhood has no direct bus service, he has to walk about a mile to catch a bus, then almost always pays a second full cash fare to transfer to a second bus to reach his destination.
“I’m not sure what business model punishes poor people,” he said.
Protesters advocate “fair fares” in a demonstration Friday against the Port Authority's fare structure at Sixth Avenue and Wood Street, Downtown.