Fares in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Charlotte

With the nation confronting economic problems as a whole, and with tax revenues down dramatically, transit agencies are finding themselves in need of more money, and fare increases are on the calender all over the country. We’ve talked about the potential extreme fare hikes in New York City, where a base fare may increase from $2 today to $2.50 or even $3 in the next few months, but today there’s discussion to increase rider revenue in Minneapolis and Seattle, and a new strategy for fare collection in Charlotte.

Fare Increases in Minneapolis

The Star-Tribune reports today that Minneapolis’ Metro Council has called to increase fares by 50% because of increasing numbers of riders, slower revenues, and high energy costs. The most fundamental problem is that the majority of revenue designated for transit operations comes from a motor vehicle sales tax, and as we’ve seen over the past few months, the number of new cars being sold in the United States has plummeted incredibly quickly. In 2001, the Metro Council decided to change to this revenue source (from a former regional property tax), convinced that revenue growth would be quicker from the motor vehicle tax. Unfortunately, that prediction has proven disastrous.

Currently a separate tax approved by the state legislature provides money to transitways, such as the Hiawatha Light Rail line, but that does nothing for the mainstay of the system’s operation: buses running in regular streets. The Council cannot cut service on those lines because of fears that such a reduction in operations would make getting federal money for the planned Central Corridor light rail line from Minneapolis to St. Paul more difficult. So few options remain other than increasing rider-based revenue.

Seattle Link Light Rail – Zone-Based Fares?

Seattle is considering how it will pay for operations along its Link Light Rail line, which will open this year. Sound Transit is currently discussing a zone-based fare structure, which would mean increasing costs for the rider depending on the length of his or her ride. The Seattle Transit Blog reports that fares would start at $1.75 or $2 and increase to up to $2.75 for the full ride from Downtown to SeaTac Airport. If the base fare were $2, the transit tunnel downtown would be free to ride through, as it is today, otherwise, with a $1.75 base fare, it would cost some money to ride downtown.

The question of zone-based riders seems important in Seattle’s case, which is evaluating a wide number of extensions to the light rail under construction. With such a spread out system, short rides within Seattle perhaps should not cost as much as a long-distance ride from Everett to Northgate. Washington’s Metro operates with such a fare system, while New York’s subway trips cost the same no matter how long the ride takes.

One major disadvantage of a zone system is that it makes the development of weekly or monthly passes difficult. New York’s subway experienced significantly expanded ridership after the development of the 30-day MetroCard in 1997 – would other systems expand their riderships similarly if they too implemented monthly passes?

Fare Zones in Charlotte

Charlotte, which has had some problems with overcrowding at its stations, especially after major sporting events, will have fare zones set up at high-ridership stations. This will alow ticket-checkers to look at tickets before entry onto trains in specified areas of the system downtown and at the southern terminus. The transit agency hopes that the development of such fare zones would make overcrowding less of a a problem and make ticket inspection more simple.

This is somewhat of a deviation from the typical “honor system” that operates in Charlotte and in most light rail cities, where one is only expected to have to present one’s ticket inside of the train, rather than at stations. By creating “fare zones,” Charlotte is basically implementing invisible turnstiles, which are used by most Metro systems to contol entry into stations, which are for fare-holders only.

One wonders, though, whether Charlotte and other light rail cities ought instead simply put in turnstiles outside of their stations, so that ticket-checkers wouldn’t be needed at all. Los Angeles voted for the implementation at the end of 2007 of such devices at high-use stations along its Metro Red Line and Light Rail Blue and Green Lines, but the construction was delayed indefinately in late January 2008 because of threat of a lawsuit. Those lines previously all the honor system. The city argued that the $30 million cost necessary to put in the turnstils would be worth it as an estimated $7 million is lost every year to fare evaders.

That said, L.A.’s decision – even if it had been implemented – seems a bit half-hearted, considering that it would only have applied to certain stations and ticket-checkers would still be necessary throughout the rest of the line. Should all rail systems use turnstiles to control access? Do too many people ride for free? Or is the honor system ultimately cheaper to implement and therefore a better deal for cities, even though it results in some lost revenue?

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