VTA board study session – fare streamlining, EcoPass and equity

On Friday morning, the VTA board is holding a board workshop covering the Next Network bus system redesign, fare study and policies for implementing Santa Clara County Transportation measure B. 

Because the Next Network redesign creates more frequent service, encouraging more transit trips requiring a transfer, the fare study proposes to eliminate the intra-agency transfer penalty.  Riders whose trip includes more than one bus in less than 90 minutes will only have to pay once. This measure will be helpful for transit ridership and equity.
However, the staff report is silent on the important issue of “inter-agency” transfers and fare structure.
Inter-agency streamlining – set the direction?
Inter-agency transfers will be particularly important in San Jose, where BART is being extended to connect to VTA, and where additional routes to and from San Jose now require transfers to/from BART and Caltrain.  Recent planning for the Diridon station shows that the city expects there to be nearly as many transfer trips between agencies in 2040 as there are total transit trips today.
Diridon 2040 Transfers
This would also be important in other cities where local transportation demand management programs administer bulk passes for commuters across multiple agencies, with offerings that are largely separate for each agency.
It will take additional effort to craft regional funding/financing solutions to allay transit agency fears about fare streamlining policies that may will increase overall transit ridership and revenue but may cause modest negative impacts for any given agency.
It would be ideal to have the VTA board take this opportunity to set a direction to pursue further fare streamlining, though that step goes beyond the scope for immediate action.
EcoPass adjustment doesn’t go far enough
 Another topic where the fare study doesn’t go far enough is the proposed adjustment to EcoPass pricing. VTA’s bulk-discount program, designed to create incentives for transit ridership for employers and multi-family housing by allowing transit passes to be bought in bulk and given out to all employees or residents, was originally intended to be “farebox neutral.” In other words, at the end of the day, the price per ride would be about the same as a regular adult fare, because not all pass recipients would use transit every day, even though many more would use transit than without the program.
Unfortunately, the EcoPass program is far from farebox neutral, generating only $.61 per rider, rather than $1.50 for an average adult fare.  The good news is that VTA proposes to increase these fares, which are much too good a deal for institutional customers.  Also, reasonably, VTA proposes to increase fares less for educational customers such as community colleges (a 5% increase), and nonprofit employers (a 15% increase) and more for corporate employers.

Much less reasonably, the price for corporate employers is proposed to go up by only 25%. If the average EcoPass nets only $.61 per trip compared to an average $1.50 adult fare, then farebox neutrality for corporate employers would require nearly fare increase of 2.5 times to become farebox neutral, not 25%!  This proposal is still much too sweet a deal for corporate employers.

In Silicon Valley, where we face a large and growing disparity between high-income and low-income residents, a retail worker or janitor has to pay nearly 3x for their VTA transit pass as an engineer at Cisco – not even counting the tax benefits that the corporate employee gets and the small-business employee doesn’t.  Meanwhile, VTA is planning to increase the cost of single fare tickets and monthly passes by 25%.
We understand that it may be difficult for VTA to push back and demand that corporate employers get less of a subsidy.  But as a service that is funded by a regressive sales tax, and that serves many low-income residents, it is not fair for VTA to subsidize corporate employees more than low-income workers at small businesses.
Truing up the corporate fares might also help VTA balance its budget with lower fare increase on individual customers.