Jeramey Jannene

The County’s Paradoxical Transit Proposal

A proposal to lower cash fares for county buses could actually increase the cost for many riders.

By - Oct 24th, 2012 07:11 am
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The idea is to eliminate transfers, which the bus drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, has been pushing for a number of years. The problem is that thieves jump on the bus and steal a stack of transfers, which they then sell on the street. Drivers have at times gotten into scuffles over this.

And so a proposed amendment to the 2013 Milwaukee County Budget would eliminate paper transfers and lower the cash fare to ride Milwaukee County Transit System buses and paratransit services. But the proposal — sponsored by first-term Supervisors Jason Haas and David Bowen — would unfortunately create a paradoxical situation where lowering cash fares would actually increase costs for a number of riders. These changes would go into effect a year before a new farecard system is estimated to be deployed (which will very likely eliminate paper transfers).

Paper Transfers

Paper Transfers

The current cash fare for MCTS is $2.25 for a regular rider. Riders have a number of avenues to reduce the fare, including a unlimited ride monthly pass ($64.00), unlimited ride weekly ride pass ($17.50), and a 10-pack of tickets ($17.50). Everyday riders are wise to purchase a monthly or weekly pass to get the lowest fare possible, and the proposed amendment would have zero effect on their cost to ride (MCTS’ annual report pegs them at 17% of riders).

The proposal would negatively impact those that take advantage of the 10-pack of tickets. Reducing the cash fare to $1.75 without a reduction in the 10-pack price immediately eliminates almost all of the value of the 10-pack. Doubling down on the negative impact is the elimination of the paper transfer, which would make any single trip involving more than one bus (currently at a total cost of $1.75 with a ticket plus paper transfer) more expensive.

The increased cost to riders who rely on transfers would supposedly be offset by the introduction of a $4 all-day, unlimited ride pass. Unfortunately, the day pass concept is rife with issues.

  • Each day pass would need to be purchased in advance of its use.
  • The day pass would need to be purchased in an approved outlet. There is not an outlet within walking distance of many riders’ homes.
  • One-way cash rides that involve multiple buses would cost significantly more. The cost jumps from $2.25 to $3.50 because you must pay twice (now $1.75), as there are no transfers. Buying the all-day pass is an even worse proposition as it costs $4.
  • Ticket users making a round-trip with transfers would see a fare increase of at least 50 cents ($3.50 to the $4 day pass), and according to MCTS’ 2011 annual report, ticket users represent 27% of riders.
  • Increasing the number of cash transactions on buses (by eliminating the use of 10-packs) will slow down the system, because of the increased transaction time required.

If Supervisors Haas and Bowen want to lower the price of riding the bus for the 42% of riders who pay cash, they would be wise to encourage them to purchase 10-packs of tickets in advance or consider simply lowering the cash fare (with no other actions). If they want to simply please the union a year before MCTS can create a new paperless farecard system, they should consider that eliminating the paper transfers a year early will have the unfortunate impact of raising fares on at least 27% of riders when they need to transfer.

The reality is that if one is paying $2.25 to ride the bus today, they’re doing it in the least efficient way possible. Riders should buy the ten pack in advance for $17.50 ($1.75 a ride). This proposal unnecessarily raises the price on riding the bus to riders who are currently taking advantage of reduced fares through advance purchases. Furthermore, I have concerns that that the 42% of riders paying cash today are not going to be able to take advantage of the day passes. If they are going to be able to take advantage of day passes, wouldn’t they be taking advantage of the cheaper advance fares today?

This budget amendment needs work, and should not be rushed through. The Finance, Personal, and Audit Committee wisely laid over the amendment yesterday, with numerous Supervisors raising questions about the proposal.

I greatly respect and am pleased by the Supervisors pushing for a reduction in bus fare that is estimated to increase system revenue (a resulting levy reduction of $100,000 is estimated). Additionally, I value the safety of our drivers, as a happy and welcoming driver leads to a much better riding experience. However, rushing this through at the expense of 1 in 4 riders while another solution is set to be deployed in a year is extremely shortsighted.

There are potential solutions to mitigate the negative impact to 27% of riders.

  • Keep the 10-packs, but lower their price below the cash fare. This would likely offset the trips where it costs more.
  • Diminish the value of the transfer (thereby lessening the odds they are stolen from the bus) by adding a cost to it (paper transfer + 25 cents to ride). Tack on a discount to fares, and it has no financial impact to riders, but diminishes the value of paper transfers to would-be thieves.
  • Introduce the $4 day pass, but make no other changes. This would encourage more ridership among certain populations, like tourists and infrequent riders.

What do you think?


19 thoughts on “The County’s Paradoxical Transit Proposal”

  1. Jeff Jordan says:

    One comment. Your readers must also be aware of the senior ten pack which would be impacted by the no transfer cost to ride. I for one wouldn’t mind in that I think the senior rate is such a good deal that this wouldn’t impact my decision to take the bus

    The MCTS is still not marketing the Green Line access to the airport in any manner that is going to increase the usage.
    My wife and I always buy a Metro pass when we go to NYC or Chicago for anything more than a day. It easier to navigate the system. It almost always is cheaper.

  2. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Jeff – Yes, same principle applies with the reduced fare tickets. The reduced fare tickets are 9% of rides, and part of the 27% I referenced. A one-transfer round trip (two total transfers) on the reduced fare is currently $2.20 total with two tickets. Under the new system that same trip would cost $3.00 (four fares, 75 cents for the lowered fare). A net increase of 80 cents.

    The seniors that use the reduced fare and transfer are arguably hit the hardest by the change. Current regular ticket users that transfer will only see their fare go up 50 cents (previously two $1.75 tickets, now a $4 day pass instead of four $1.75 tickets).

  3. Keith Prochnow says:

    I use tickets and, under the proposal, I’d still buy tickets for the convenience factor. Having to make sure I have a dollar bill and 3 quarters (or seven quarters) is a pain, whereas I buy tix every few weeks and they fold up into a nice little packet in my wallet. I’d love a decrease in ticket price, as Jeramey suggests, but that’s just selfish on my part! Still, they ought to reward me in some way for getting to use my money for a few weeks.

    The farecard system will straighten so much out. Swipe your card when you get on and the system will let you swipe free on the next bus within an hour of boarding the first bus. At least, that’s how it works in NYC and San Francisco, where you also get to transfer to other modes of transit: subway, streetcar and so on. The paper transfer crimes are a genuine problem for our drivers, but couldn’t they hold on another year?

    Now if only the farecard system would also work on the Wisconsin/Bluemound and the Fon du Lac subways those cheap Germans should have built in the 60s and the Racine/Mequon light rail line that should have gone up in the 80s!

  4. roz says:

    it is too bad that milwaukee cannot do what the new york city transit system did, which is to create a card system. a time limit is built into the computer system to allow for transfers on a fare. system seems to work well.

  5. ssKate says:

    Eliminating transfers because they get stolen is not addressing the problem correctly. The MCTS will end up punishing the wrong people.
    The better method would be to figure out how to prevent the transfers from being stolen–unless the MCTS really just wants to raise fares.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @roz A card system is in the works.

  7. Jeff says:

    I am an MCTS bus driver out of the Fond du Lac station. I deal with change/transfer issues on a daily basis, regardless of what route I drive that day (or week). Paper transfers are the WORST idea there is. Do away with them now, or hurry up with the electronic fare card system that Chicago started using almost 20 years ago.

  8. T says:

    I wasn’t aware that the day pass would have to be purchased ahead of time at a pass site — that’s a huge problem for many people. Possibly increasing distribution by offering secure vending machines at various 24 hour sites — like ATMs in gas stations or convenience stores — would really help people take advantage of it.

  9. flyonthewall says:

    So MCTS driver, if paper transfers are so bad… why have they been used almost everywhere (before farecards) and for so long?

    Excuse me for not caring if your job is any easier.

  10. T says:

    Paper transfers were used until technology brought improvement. Kind of like horses and buggies were used before electric street cars, and then internal combustion engines.

    And I’m imagining it’s not so much a matter of “easier” than “not getting mugged for transfers”

  11. Keith Prochnow says:

    @T: Wow, you think the internal combustion engine was an improvement over electric street cars! For moving people around a densely populated area, I couldn’t disagree more.

  12. John says:

    How about reduce the cash fare to $2, then provide a transfer for free by request, but charge when the person is getting on the bus to USE the transfer.

    That way, the street value of stolen transfers or even a paper transfer that is given away to someone drops by the amount charged to use the transfer. Say, this fare when a transfer is presented is set at 50 cents. If someone is selling illegal transfers on the street, no one will likely buy them at $1.50 (because cash fare would be the same $1.50 + $0.50 = $2). So the illegal sales would have to ask perhaps $1 for the transfer? Someone would still have to pay 50 cents to use the transfer. Or set the price at $1 to use the transfer, and the person on the street would have to charge less than $1, perhaps 50 cents for the transfer–much less incentive. Even at $1 to use the transfer, a cash rider could take 2 buses for $3. A ticket user could take 2 buses for $2.75. Also, by setting the time to pay for the transfer to when it is USED, a person who gets a transfer and then decides not to use it or it expires is out no money.

    This is not an entire solution, but perhaps an interim way to reduce the value of illegally-used transfers immediately until the electronic fare-card systems are in place.

    The real shame is that the electronic fare card system in Milwaukee is still a year away–inexcusable. Systems all over the world have had these for decades. The persons and organizations responsible for this delay should pay out of their own pockets for changes in the transfer system now as well as for additional security on the buses to watch out for people stealing or using stolen transfers.

  13. Jimmyboy says:

    A trolley that runs the same route as an existing bus system will not move people any faster or more efficiently. It also serves as an added hazard to cyclists and motorcyclists.

  14. Dave Wanninger says:

    Reduced pricing for 10 packs is a direct way of evening things out somewhat for those folks who don’t/can’t do the bus pass. It’s a decent stopgap until fare cards get here.

  15. Dave Reid says:

    @jimmyboy A couple of things The streetcar does not run the same route (some duplicate parts but not the entire route) as any one bus that I’m aware of and it has been shown many times that adding rail based service (LRT and Streetcars) brings new riders.

  16. Charles says:

    Time and effort should be towards getting a card system up and running. Don’t loose focus of the best outcome by dealing with only the issue of transfers.
    In addition to this, MCTS should allow people to receive monthly tickets via mail. Not only would this make it more convenient for people to obtain monthly tickets, but I’m sure there has to be cost associated with sending tickets to the various stores.

  17. al simonis says:

    Jeramey, It is a shame to see you downplay the assaults on bus operators by saying that operators get into scuffles over the misuse of paper transfers. Have you ever once interviewed an operator that was assaulted because they were trying to do thier job and questioning the use of an illegal transfer? Bus operators are hard working people who take the responsibility of getting thier passengers to thier destinations safe and in a timely manner very seriously. The misuse of paper transfers costs MCTS thousands of dollars a day and need to be eliminated. I commend Supervisors Hass and Bowen for thier commitment to make our busses safer for everyone. And no they are not looking to simply please the Union they are taking a step to stop the abuse of bus operators who live in thier communities and moving forward to make the bus system safer for everyone

  18. Dave Reid says:

    @Jimmyboy And yes bikes and streetcars / lrt can not mix 🙂

  19. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Al – Thank you for responding publicly. I value your input on this issue (and all things transit-related).

    I will begin by saying that I think you and I share an equal frustration with the length of time it has taken to implement the new farecard system. A system that should (based on similar systems elsewhere) eliminate paper transfers.

    The elimination of paper transfers will undoubtedly make it safer for operators. However, the policy as proposed will lead to very little improvement for riders, and will raise costs for a number of riders.

    If the paper transfers are to be eliminated (one year ahead of where they likely will be), it would be nice if the new fare structure at least did not punish riders. The proposed new fare structure unquestionably punishes frequent, but not everyday riders who purchase tickets in advance (27% of riders).

    Based on 2011 MCTS Annnual Report data…
    – 27% of riders will see a fare increase if they use transfers. These are riders that using existing discounts through advanced purchase of tickets.
    – 42% of riders will have their first fare go down, however if they are one-way riders with a transfer their fare will actually increase 55%. All of these riders could see a fare reduction of 22% by simply purchasing 10-packs of tickets.
    – 31% of riders will see no impact from this change

    I have concerns that the idea of a day-pass will work as a solution for a number of reasons beyond what I’ve listed in my original editorial. The day-pass is proposed as a solution to the increase in transfer costs, but 42% of riders strangely aren’t paying in advance now. After years of having incentives to buy advanced fares, will they suddenly start doing so? Or is this in effect a substantial fare increase on those that transfer? Additionally, the lost revenue referenced by ATU is going to still exist. The day pass will be sold on the street after a commuter uses it for the day. It might not be as pervasive as transfer resale, but it will still be a problem.

    I wish ATU and/or MCTS could produce a data-driven report on how severe the transfer problem is. I have yet to see any data or reports that indicate if MCTS is indeed losing thousands of dollars a day (and if so, how many thousands is it).

    Instead, I, as a rider, feel I am merely caught in the middle of a fight between the transit union and the transit company. A resolution that protects the safety of drivers and the integrity of the system is obviously desirable, but not if it is hastily done and lumps the only significant negative impacts on riders.

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