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Tory Gattis

No free fares

For the best, I’d say.

Free fares appear to be a hard sell for Houston area transit officials, who said while they are open to exploring discounts, people boarding buses and trains will need to fork over $1.25 for the foreseeable future.

After a comprehensive analysis by Metropolitan Transit Authority staff, transit board members said removing fares from the system actually would increase agency costs by creating a need for more buses and operators, potentially to the tune of $170.6 million annually.

“It is just not feasible to do free fares,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said, echoing others on the board and in the transit agency.

[…]

Metro’s analysis concluded that ridership would jump from 86 million trips a year to an estimated 117 million if fares were eliminated altogether. Even offering free rides only during peak hours could boost ridership to around 100 million, the study found.

Those new riders, however, would come at a big cost, said Julie Fernandez, the transit agency’s lead management analyst. To handle the demand, Metro would need nearly 500 more vehicles, mostly buses, and 415 new operators. Such a sizable jump in vehicles and employees would require the agency to build a new bus operating facility to complement the existing six bus depots.

Even preparing the transit system for free rides would take four years, Fernandez said, adding, “it takes time to order new buses.”

The cost of going free prompted many Metro board officials to conclude it was not likely.

“It is easy to look at it and say ‘OK, it is such a small part of our budget’ but it is really more complicated than that,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for the background. Metro says it will consider some other options like free fares for schoolchildren (they get discounted fares now), and Metro Chair Carrin Patman said this was a useful exercise while free-fare-advocate Tory Gattis said he was satisfied with the study Metro did. I agree this was worth considering, but in the end this was clearly the right call. Maybe a smaller version of this makes sense, maybe sometime in the future it makes sense, but for now Metro should focus on other things.

Despite the benefits of increased ridership, many of those urging Metro to expand service oppose the elimination of fares.

“When people don’t pay for something, there’s no value to it,” Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, told Metro board members in December.

LINK works with low-income and minority communities to increase transit offerings, something Blair said could be stunted if Metro were to give up the roughly $70 million in annual fare revenues. Such a move also could delay efforts to expand service or add routes long-sought by some voters that overwhelmingly supported Metro’s $3.5 billion transit plan in November.

“Metro will risk the overwhelming support you have earned,” Blair said.

I agree completely.

Back to the no-fares question

I remain skeptical, but we’ll see.

As it stands right now, most of METRO’s operating funds don’t come from the fares. The transit agency gets most of its money from a one-cent sales tax, which caught the attention of Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack recently spoke before the METRO board on why the agency should consider free or reduced fares. He said that people are already paying for the transit service through the sales tax and a financial incentive for riding could get more people on board.

“And so if we just keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to build more freeways, we’re going to continue to do other forms of transportation, but at the end, it makes no sense to have buses only partially full running around,” said Radack.

[…]

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said while fares aren’t a huge part of their budget, they’d have to figure out a way to make up that money if they stopped charging riders.

“I think what people don’t realize is there are unanticipated consequences of a free fare policy that we just need to fully consider before we went to it,” Patman told News 88.7.

And those consequences are what concern Oni Blair. She heads the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston. Blair said to get more riders, METRO needs to put its focus on other issues.

“It’s the little things we take for granted,” said Blair. “Does the bus come on time? Because if I’m trying to schedule my day I need to get there on time and know what to predict. Does the bus come frequently, so people don’t have to wait half an hour to an hour for the bus to come? Can I wait in dignity at a shelter that is accessible and safe for me?”

And Blair said that all those things cost money.

“The loss of revenue from the fares METRO currently has would undermine their other access to improving operations, improving customer service, improving all of those things,” said Blair. “If they don’t have that revenue they can’t address the things that people want.”

See here for my previously-stated concerns. Metro may not get much money from fares, but it does get some money from them, and that would have to be made up elsewhere, which is where I fear that political pressure, or interference from the state, could undermine this whole rationale. I’m of a similar mind as Oni Blair – the top priority needs to be making transit more accessible to more people. We also need to recognize that there’s a limit to how much we can grow transit ridership in this region as long as driving cars is the vastly-catered-to default. That’s a much bigger question, one that will take more than Metro to work out. For now, let’s try to make Metro the best it can be. Maybe that involves reducing or eliminating fares, but I think there are other options to work on first.

Metro moves towards cashless fares (maybe)

We started with this.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday will consider the first in a series of agreements to revamp its fare payment system that eventually could offer riders the option of using smartphones, credit cards and electronic wallets to hop aboard its buses and trains.

In a nod to the changing ways consumers use to pay for services, the transit agency is expected to spend nearly $100 million to remake its collection of bus and train fares for the next 15 years. That future could lead to cash being kicked off the bus as transit officials weigh whether to replace aging fareboxes.

Metro is among a handful of large American transit agencies giving some thought to how to reduce the number of riders tossing coins and convert them to tapping a card, which could help speed up bus trips.

“Metro would be in the first wave of agencies making this transition but won’t be doing it alone,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy group.

The first step for Metro is a seven-year $37 million contract with INIT, Innovations in Transportation Inc., for new software and management of its fare collection system, including new validators — the cinder block-sized devices people tap with their Q cards.

Two-thirds of the initial cost, more than $24 million, would go toward equipping buses and installing computer systems in Metro offices to handle fares.

With the new gear will come new options for riders. Currently, riders can use Q cards, cash or Metro’s smartphone app to hop aboard.

The new machines will accept the current Q cards, along with such options as contactless credit cards that allow customers to pay by tapping a card reader and Apple Pay and Google Pay that store credit card info on mobile phones.

“The system will let us use mobile wallets,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro. “It transitions very nicely with our old system and new opportunities.”

[…]

Many transit agencies are looking to reduce or avoid cash payments altogether for a variety of reasons, including speeding up transit and eliminating the cost of handling money.

“Boston has made cashless bus fare collection an explicit goal, and the (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in New York has eliminated cash payment on express buses, intimating that regular buses could go cashless in the next few years (the earliest would be 2023),” Fried said.

Paying cash typically takes a few seconds longer than tapping a Q card, with those seconds adding up along a route. The faster people can board, the faster the bus can get moving again — improving the efficiency of trips and getting people to their destinations faster.

Eliminating cash fares also could give transit agencies better use of bus space by allowing passengers to board at the front and rear doors. In Houston, Metro riders can only exit from the back door, but must enter in the front to tap their cards or pay cash.

San Francisco opened its buses and trains to all-door boarding in 2012, and checks fares now with fare inspectors, similar to Metro’s enforcement of light rail payments in Houston. A 2017 study showed San Francisco’s bus speeds increased 2 percent and ridership on buses increased 2 percent.

As the story notes, it would probably not be till 2022 when we see something like this happen. About twenty percent of Metro fares are paid in cash, so ensuring that those riders would not be left behind is a priority. The benefit for Metro is clear – better and more efficient boarding, which means buses can run on a more dependable schedule, which boosts service and ridership overall.

The story then got this reaction from Tory Gattis:


On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. Fare collection revenue is a very small part of Metro’s budget. Free fares would make boarding even more efficient, would certainly ensure that cash-paying riders are taken care of, would increase ridership further, and would free up capital for buying more buses. Seems like a win all around, right?

It appears that argument had an effect.

Metro on Thursday delayed consideration of a $37 million contract for a new fare system so transit officials can ponder how it would affect efforts to eliminate fares altogether for some riders.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors was scheduled to approve the seven-year agreement, but the item was pulled from the agenda in the morning, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, “in light of the fact we are also doing a free fare study.”

The transit agency is researching options for eliminating fares, or eliminating them for certain groups of riders, such as schoolchildren and college students.

[…]

Though fares make up a small percentage of Metro’s budget — $67.6 million, or 11.1 percent, of its 2017 operating revenues, according to federal data — eliminating them entirely can be tricky. Transit agencies must follow federal laws, which require fares to be fair and equitable for all users, based on the type of service offered. Removing fees for bus or rail use likely would mean Metro also would have to remove fares on paratransit for disabled and elderly passengers, an increasingly costly part of the agency’s budget.

Eliminating fares also could complicate federal funding for major agency projects if officials in Washington worry that Houston is not bringing in enough money to share the costs of projects.

[…]

Though some transit agencies offer free rides in partnerships with schools or within certain fare-free zones to encourage bus use in urban areas, Chapel Hill, N.C., is the only large transit agency to entirely remove fares in the U.S. That transit system is heavily subsidized by the University of North Carolina, the main campus of which is in Chapel Hill. Several small systems in college towns offer free transit.

Free ride programs have faced ups and downs in other cities, with transit systems similar in size to Houston. Portland, Ore., offered free trips within a special zone for nearly 40 years and saw huge gains in transit ridership as a result. The free zone, however, also led to complaints of increased crime and vagrancy, and it made enforcing fares difficult in a larger region around the zone. Tri-Met, Portland’s transit agency, abolished the fare-free zone in 2012.

Metro Chair Patman said in this story that she had spoken to Gattis, and that the fare box contract would be taken up in December, after a free fare study had been conducted. I think Tory’s argument has merit, but I worry about the politics of it. If public transportation were completely fare-free, a significant portion of the population will come to see it as an entitlement, something that “poor people” get that “the rest of us” pay for with our taxes. Once that happens, there will be political pressure to cut funding for transit, since after all it only “benefits” a small number of people. Republican legislators in Texas are already scheming to siphon off city sales tax revenues. Don’t think for a minute that making Metro rides free wouldn’t increase their incentive to do that. And yes, I am fully aware that this is a factually inaccurate and morally bankrupt way of thinking about transit. But it’s there, and it will be even more there if we eliminate fares. Which is a shame, but this is the world we live in. We’ll see what the result of Metro’s study is.