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Transit Agencies Considering Fare Hikes To Pay For System Upgrade

A Blue Line MTS Trolley train in Barrio Logan, San Diego, Feb. 21, 2018.

Credit: Matt Hoffman

Above: A Blue Line MTS Trolley train in Barrio Logan, San Diego, Feb. 21, 2018.

San Diego's public transit systems are moving to a new method of collecting fares intended to be more flexible and user friendly — and they might increase some fares to pay for it.

The new fare collection system includes "fare capping," which allows a rider to pay one-way fares until they add up to the equivalent of a daily or monthly pass. After that point, their fare card or smartphone app will be automatically loaded with that daily or monthly pass and the rest of their rides within that time period will be free.

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The new system, which is branded PRONTO and will replace the existing Compass Card, is expected to launch this summer. The pay-as-you-go alternative eliminates the guesswork some passengers have to use to determine whether a daily or monthly pass will be worth the price, said Metropolitan Transit System CEO Sharon Cooney.

"It allows people to just basically get the best fare available to them without even thinking twice about it," Cooney said.

MTS staff predict many passengers will save money under the new system — but the flip side of that savings is between $2 million and $5 million in lost revenue for MTS and its North County counterpart, the North County Transit District. To keep the program revenue-neutral, the agencies are proposing raising the cost of a one-way fare by a quarter to $2.75. Fares for paratransit services, available to people with disabilities, would go from $5 to $5.50.

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Cooney said the fare proposal was not directly related to the budget constraints MTS is facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency expects to receive a total of $220 million from the CARES Act over the next several years, which is expected to help prevent service cuts. Though ridership is still depressed due to the pandemic, better-than-expected sales tax revenues have put MTS slightly ahead of budget for the current fiscal year, Cooney said.

At a public outreach webinar Tuesday, several people pushed back against the fare hike proposal and said it could not come at a worse time, when many transit riders are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. Some noted MTS already raised fares just over a year ago in September 2019.

Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which oversees MTS and NCTD, said he shared those concerns and that his agency is also exploring other ways to fund the new system.

"This is not about going to the board and asking for a fare increase," Ikhrata said. "It is about a new fare system that's going to create a revenue gap that we need to fill somehow, and the most unlikely option would be a fare increase."

Ikhrata did not say what the likelier options would be.

The overall proposal by MTS and NCTD includes two possible fare change scenarios. Both would include the increased one-way and paratransit fares, as well as a newly discounted $1.25 one-way fare for youth aged 6-18.

The first scenario, to be considered by both agencies' boards, would leave the rest of the fares unchanged. The second option would raise the standard monthly pass from $72 to $75 and the discounted monthly pass available to seniors, people with disabilities, Medicare recipients and youth from $23 to $24.

The transit agencies are planning a final public outreach webinar on Wednesday at 6 p.m. MTS and NCTD board members are scheduled to review the proposed fare increases in separate meetings on Jan. 21, but will not vote on whether to approve them until February. The fare change also requires approval from the SANDAG board of directors.

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Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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