Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Two legislators on the MARTA oversight committee have suggested to the transit agency that it do more research on distance-based fares, and employ such a system to raise revenues. Today, MARTA’s leader explains that it’s a complicated process to switch, and it would be premature to do so right now, as the Atlanta Regional Commission is studying further integration of suburban bus systems with MARTA. In our second column, a transportation analyst writes how distance-based fares could help MARTA.
Commenting is open.
By Keith T. Parker
As MARTA advances its transformation initiative to fundamentally improve the way we do business, we are listening closely to those urging us to overhaul our fare structure, most notably to implement variable-based fares.
We appreciate their suggestions and want to provide information about some important developments that are already underway.
By far, MARTA is the largest provider of bus, train and para-transit services in metro Atlanta, logging about 140 million passenger trips in 2011. But we’re hardly alone.
Linked by MARTA’s Breeze card fare collection system, Cobb Community Transit, Gwinnett County Transit and GRTA’s Xpress buses also offer convenient and affordable transportation options to millions of customers across the region each year.
Moreover, there are non-Breeze bus services in Cherokee, Coweta and Henry counties – along with local shuttles and exciting new projects such as the Atlanta Streetcar and Atlanta Beltline – that we expect will become part of a seamlessly integrated transit network in the not-so-distant future.
As metro Atlanta continues to grow, MARTA’s relationships with our neighboring transit agencies are likely to become increasingly collaborative and interdependent.
MARTA, which launched Breeze in 2005, also recognizes that any plan to expand transit accessibility and connectivity must include a fare collection system that’s equitable for all.
Fortunately, a joint effort being spearheaded by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is expected to bring MARTA and the region’s transit systems much closer to achieving that long-term goal.
Late last year, the ARC commissioned a private-sector firm to conduct a Regional Multi-Modal Public Transit Automated Fare Collection Study. Simply put, the study will help regional transit providers and policymakers to answer these key questions:
• How does metro Atlanta ensure that existing fare collection operates at maximum efficiency?
• How does metro Atlanta transition to the next generation of fare collection?
• What are the Atlanta regions goals for the “next generation” of fare collection and what will that look like?
Long before the ARC study was commissioned, MARTA conducted its own comprehensive assessment to determine whether we should transition from our current “flat” fare structure ($2.50 for most single-passenger trips) to a variable fare based, for example, on how far or the time of day customers are traveling.
Distance-based fare collection systems have obvious merits, such as a more equitable fee for the amount of service used. Still, there is considerable debate about whether those systems generate more revenue, are simpler to operate or easier for customers to negotiate.
For the record, five of the seven major transit systems built in the U.S. after World War II, including MARTA, employ flat-fare systems. The exceptions are BART in San Francisco and Metro in Washington, D.C.
As we make the decisions about the fare collection model for our future, we realize the current Breeze system is getting close to the end of its useful life. Estimates indicate that updating the Breeze system for distance-based travel would cost tens of millions of dollars, funds unlikely to be completely recouped in increased fare revenue.
Also, given the rising popularity of digital payment systems, some using cell phones and other mobile devices, it’s imperative that MARTA and other transit agencies remain mindful that today’s cutting-edge technology can quickly become obsolete.
The focus of the ARC-led study is to survey the relative strengths and weaknesses of fare collection systems for nationally, to identify promising technologies and recommend the best practices for the specific needs of our region.
Since the study recommendations are due by the end of the year, plans to unilaterally alter MARTA’s fare collection system would be premature.
The advent of the fully automated Breeze card fare system eight years ago established MARTA as an industry pioneer as the first to deploy smart card technology. MARTA is still committed to working closely with all stakeholders to develop a forward-looking fare system that delivers a solid return on investment and serves our customers no matter where they come from, or where they’re going.
Keith T. Parker is CEO and general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
By Baruch Feigenbaum
Rail systems in San Francisco and Washington D.C. both charge their customers based on how far they are traveling. Today, MARTA should be looking to enact distance-based fares on rail, as well as bus-rapid transit (BRT) and express buses.
For example, passengers on MARTA’s BRT system currently pay a flat fare no matter how far they are going. So passengers traveling on route 520 from Mountain Industrial Blvd and E. Ponce De Leon Avenue to Kensington Station pay $2.50 to travel seven miles. And passengers traveling from Memorial Drive at Georgia Perimeter’s Clarkston Campus to Kensington Station pay the same price, $2.50, to go two miles.
If you were going to make those trips by car, the federal government’s reimbursement rates for traveling the seven miles from Mountain Industrial Boulevard to Kensington would be $3.92. The reimbursement rate for traveling from Georgia Perimeter to Kensington Station would be $1.12.
Those rates reveal how MARTA’s current fare policy is in conflict with the region’s transit goals. Atlanta has been trying to encourage people to use transit for short trips. But why take transit when the fare system makes driving cheaper and discourages short transit trips?
Similarly, many Atlanta planners want people live closer to where they work, but the flat fare system actually encourages transit users to live far away from their jobs because long-distance bus riders don’t have to pay the full costs of their transit trips.
So how would MARTA’s BRT service differ with distance-based fares?
Using a rate of $0.56 per mile on MARTA’s 520 BRT, from Mountain Industrial Boulevard to Kensington Station the fare would be $4.00. The trip from Hambrick Road to Kensington would cost $2.00 and the trip from Georgia Perimeter to Kensington would cost $1.20.
GRTA’s Xpress has already implemented a two-zone fare structure: Green Zone users pay $3 each way while Blue Zone customers pay $4 each way. But under a distance-based fare system, customers would see some changes. Let’s use Xpress Route 400 as an example. Since this route is on a freeway we will use a rate of $0.25 per mile. Customers traveling from Cumming to the North Springs MARTA station would pay $5.40, customers to midtown would pay $8.75 and customers to downtown would pay $9.00.
This is obviously an increase from the current rates, but these higher rates could be used to run more buses, more often, which would reduce wait times and increase the efficiency and reliability of bus travel. And to ensure low-income individuals aren’t priced out of the bus system, transit vouchers should be provided to those in financial need.
MARTA should be looking at distance-based fares as one of the ways to give riders incentives to use transit for short trips and make the fare system more equitable as long-distance users pay fares that more accurately reflect their costs.
Baruch Feigenbaum is transportation policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.