By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) has commissioned a study on the fare riders pay to use the bus and the types of passes available to them.
“This will be an in-depth look into how passengers use fares in our system,” Amy Pettine, RIPTA’s executive director of planning, said in an April press release. “We’re going to be looking at what types of fare products and sales locations might make it easier for people to use RIPTA, and whether we should continue to be ‘one state, one rate,’ (and) how we can use fares to create easier connections to commuter rail.”
The $170,500 study is being conducted by LTK Engineering Services of Pennsylvania, which has previously worked with Amtrak and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).
The study will identify ways to eliminate barriers that discourage bus ridership, according to Barbara Polichetti, RIPTA’s director of public affairs. She said it will identify fare products that are less complicated and more accessible for riders.
The information-gathering phase of the study has highlighted existing fare-product issues. Transfers, for example, don’t work for all riders, Pettine said in a recent interview with ecoRI News. A passenger making a long bus trip, requiring a transfer near the end of the ride, must pay for an additional full-priced ticket to board his or her transfer bus if they are outside the window of time that a 50-cent transfer is permitted.
Hypothetically, the transfer issue could be resolved by raising the general fare and eliminating transfers entirely, Pettine said. This also would decrease boarding times and reduce paper usage and its associated cost by eliminating transfer tickets, she added. The study is expected to generate a range of solutions to identified issues and make recommendations about which best meet RIPTA and its riders’ needs.
Demand for re-loadable passes, such as the MBTA’s Charlie Card, also has been identified, according to Pettine. She said unpopular fare products currently offered by RIPTA may be eliminated. The goal is to determine whether RIPTA is offering the types of fare products its ridership needs, she said.
Long-term improvements to fare products are also being studied. Mobile payments — made from smart phones — and open-fare payments — made with standard credit or debit cards — could attract new riders, Pettine said. RIPTA’s current fare boxes aren’t compatible with either payment method, but new fare-box technology will be installed within the next few years, she said.
Barry Schiller, a North Providence residents and longtime advocate for public transit, said he supports RIPTA assessing its fare products and fare-box technology. “RIPTA’s collection technology needs to be upgraded to speed up boarding,” he said.
RIPTA also is interested in integrating its fare products with the MBTA’s rail service. About a third of RIPTA passengers use neighboring transit services regularly, according to a recent RIPTA survey. Pettine said creating sales locations where RIPTA and MBTA fare products are both sold would make commuting by bus or rail easier. Ultimately, she said she would like to see transit users be able to board either system with the same piece of fare media.
“We want to maximize convenience as a way of maximizing ridership,” Pettine said.
In addition to considering alternative fare products, the study is also looking at new fare structures. Such changes could include charging more for express routes than for local routes, charging park-and-ride commuters — whose parking is currently subsidized — more, or moving from “one state, one rate” to a model where passengers are charged based on the distance they travel. The statewide rate of $2 per ride has been in effect since 2010, when it was raised from $1.75.
Pettine said RIPTA will consider fare options that disincentivize cash transactions — the slowest and most paper-intensive fare transaction — by offering riders who use more efficient fare products a discounted rate.
Schiller said he suspects RITPA will raise the general fare for bus riders, an outcome he doesn’t support. According to Schiller, the fare is already relatively high, and an increase to even $2.25 will dissuade people from getting on the bus.
Schiller was on the RIPTA board of directors when the fare was raised from $1 to $1.25 and said revenue didn’t rise substantially, because of lost ridership.
Due to his concern with RIPTA’s projected $5.6 million deficit and his desire to avoid service cuts, Schiller said he supports charging express and park-and-ride passengers more.
Schiller also is open to reducing the number of free rides taken on RIPTA by either charging people who currently qualify for the benefit of a minimal fare when they ride at peak hours, or lowering the qualifying threshold for the benefit from 200 percent of the poverty line “to perhaps 150 percent.” He said such proposals often face resistance from other transit advocates, many of whom benefit from free rides. Schiller estimated that about 30 percent of all rides on RIPTA are free.
Pettine said RIPTA is required to do an equity impact analysis should any of the studies eventual recommendations be approved by the board of directors. The analysis would consider the impact of any changes on low-income and minority populations, according to Pettine. The adoption of any recommendations would also trigger formal public hearings.
“One of the most important tasks in this effort is to ensure equity and to make sure any changes to our fares do not place undue burden on any one particular sector of riders,” Pettine said in the April press release.
Even if RITPA adopts a more expensive fare structure, the agency’s long-term budget troubles will continue. Passenger revenue only makes up 20 percent of RIPTA’s total budget, while the state gas tax and federal revenue contribute 44 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
“Finding sustainable public funding, either from the state or federal government, is a bigger piece of the puzzle than fares,” Polichetti said. She also said RIPTA must be mindful that raising fares could act as a disincentive to taking the bus.
Schiller agreed that a fare increase alone would not close RITPA’s substantial deficit. State taxpayers, who already subsidize automobile infrastructure such as roads and free parking lots on public property, need to contribute more to public transit, he said. There are significant land use and environmental benefits associated with supporting mass transit, Schiller noted.
Alternative fare structures will be identified by late June or early July and accompanied by public meetings, according to Pettine. After further refinement based on feedback, recommendations will be selected from the alternatives and reviewed by the board of directors later in the summer. Prior to board consideration, another set of public meetings will occur. Finally, should the board approve the recommendations, formal public hearings will be held.
RIPTA has already conducted two public outreach sessions and a public survey. Of those surveyed, 62 percent indicated that they like the one-state-one-rate system; 78 percent thought RIPTA was a good value at its current rate.
Schiller said he is hoping for an outcome where fares are collected more efficiently, fare abuses are investigated and dealt with, fare adjustments are made on park-and-ride and express routes, the general fare remains unchanged, the deficit is reduced, and, above all, service cuts are avoided.