It came as little shock to anyone when SEPTA ruled its 24-hour weekend subway service a success last week. The all-night trains, which started in June as a pilot program, have made getting home after the bar a whole lot easier, and both urbanists and media can’t seem to say enough good things about it.
In its announcement, SEPTA noted the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines had seen an overall usage increase of 50 percent on weekends since extending service hours—and that they were extending the pilot program’s end date from the originally-planned Labor Day to Nov. 2. “SEPTA hopes to see additional ridership and fare revenue increases to help offset the operating costs associated with the program,” according to the Aug. 5 release.
So, on our blog, we wanted to see what it would mean to actually offset those costs. After speaking with SEPTA Public Information Officer Manny Smith, we were provided numbers showing approximate costs of the program: $47,000 per weekend to operate the trains all night, when it was costing $13,000 per weekend with the buses, a difference of $34,000.
Then, according to the numbers we were given, SEPTA has brought in about $9,700 per weekend in new cash and token fares—which might seem a bit low, until you remember that not all riders are paying extra for those new rides. “The majority of those [late night] riders are people who use trans passes, and we haven’t seen a lot of token or cash fare riders,” said Smith. “That’s one of the reasons we’re extending the weekend service pilot.”
The idea, now, is to see how much more money will be brought in on weekends when people who aren’t necessarily known for buying week- or month-long trans passes, but are known for staying out and drinking all night—i.e., college kids—step into the mix.
“With college students back in town, with other riders resuming their normal routine after vacation and whatever they may be doing in the summer, we hope to see some additional ridership and some fare revenue increases to help offset those operating costs associated with operating overnight,” added Smith.
But there is no exact number SEPTA is necessarily looking for. “Although there is no actual revenue goal, we, of course, would like to offset our costs,” said SEPTA’s director of media relations Jerri Williams.
Doing the math: If SEPTA really thinks it can offset the costs associated with running trains instead of buses after 12:30am, it’s probably looking for about 10,800 more people, per weekend, to utilize public transportation in and around the city. Given that there are 450,000 college students in Philadelphia, according to a 2012 CityLab report, that number may not be difficult to meet. For comparison’s sake, Boston, which began a late-night train service in March, now totals about 16,000 riders per weekend—and their trans passes are not unlimited the way week- and month-long passes are in Philadelphia. Though well known as one big college campus, Boston actually has less students than Philly.
But should covering costs really be the be-all, end-all for a 24-hour train service that inevitably spurs economic activity and could result in less drunk drivers over the long haul?
Before the recent change in service, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and Econsult Solutions noted in a report that SEPTA actually contributes $3.21 billion in economic output to the Greater Philadelphia area, and generates $62.5 million in state tax revenues.
After a long, painful fight in the state Capitol last year, a transportation bill was signed and SEPTA received funding it’d been waiting for—$571.8 million for the next fiscal year, compared to just $308 million a year earlier—to begin embarking on a “Catching Up” capital program, which will help update infrastructure, projects and, finally, the smart card system.
The Authority is brining in more state money, and will continue to do so at least through 2026, meeting double the funds from FY 2013 by 2018. Which is great, but also tells us something else: Making money is fine, but making back all costs via cash fees and tokens shouldn’t be a priority of SEPTA. And it sounds like it probably isn’t. Free-market viewpoints are often made by those on the right and those who believe public transit is a way for liberals to control mass scheduling, which is exactly what columnist George Will wrote back in 2011.
“Currently, transit agencies are not trying to break even, so they are not failing if they don’t,” wrote Jarrett Walker on Human Transit in 2011. “If we propose a free-market view in which transit should be breaking even, well, I’d like to see this as well in a perfect world. But that would be a world in which government isn’t heavily subsidizing transit’s competitor, the private car—not just through road expenditures but through such interventions as minimum parking requirements and petroleum-based foreign policy.”
In other words, asking transit to make up costs or even become profitable is moot (as was state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s insistence last year that SEPTA was “just more welfare”), especially when the government essentially has its hand in everything.
Come November 2, SEPTA is going to be in for a big decision: Whether or not to, again, extend their 24-hour weekend service. They’ll inevitably have more riders come September, but whether or not they’re luring 10,000 or 15,000 paying customers below City Hall at 2am shouldn’t be a priority. Setting aside the public funds to continue $34,000 worth of weekend expenditures, should.