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MTS Nixes Cash Fares, Allows Rear-Door Boarding On Buses

A San Diego Metropolitan Transit System bus is seen in this undated photo.
Metropolitan Transit System
A San Diego Metropolitan Transit System bus is seen in this undated photo.

The Metropolitan Transit System this week eliminated cash fare payments on buses and has instructed able-bodied passengers to board via the rear doors in an effort to protect drivers from the spread of the coronavirus.

The change was made Wednesday and announced announced to the MTS executive committee via teleconference on Thursday. Front-door boarding is still allowed for seniors and people with disabilities.

Boarding and fare payment on trolleys remains the same since drivers are already separated from passengers and each trolley station is equipped with ticket vending machines.

An illustration directs MTS bus passengers to board via the rear doors.
Metropolitan Transit System
An illustration directs MTS bus passengers to board via the rear doors.

MTS has seen its ridership plummet by roughly 70% since the coronavirus pandemic forced the vast majority of San Diegans to stay at home for all but essential trips, MTS CEO Paul Jablonski told executive committee members Thursday. He, however, added that the agency is still carrying between 90,000 and 100,000 passengers every day.

The pandemic is taking a heavy toll on the MTS budget. The agency is expecting a shortfall of roughly $28 million in the current fiscal year after accounting for lost revenue from sales tax, fares, advertising and property leases, and increased costs related to the crisis. Aid for transit agencies included in the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress last week could alleviate those losses, however, with the San Diego region expected to get more than $314 million.

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MTS has pledged it will maintain regular bus and trolley schedules through April 12 to allow the remaining riders to practice the "social distancing" recommended by health officials. After April 12, it is preparing to potentially cut bus and trolley frequencies to more closely match ridership demands.

Jablonski said the changes to the fare and boarding policies have been well received by bus drivers and passengers alike. Passengers boarding through the rear doors are asked to simply flash their Compass Card or mobile phone ticket to the driver.

"People that were going to pay by cash, we just tell them, 'sit down and ride and try to come up with another method in the next day or so,'" he said. "It's kind of on the honor system."

Jablonski said MTS was not eliminating fares all together out of concern that it would undermine the public health orders for people to stay at home and stay at least six feet away from people who are not part of their household. He said the remaining ridership was likely limited to essential workers such as first responders, grocery clerks, janitors or security officers.

"We really don't want to encourage additional ridership," Jablonski said. "The people that are riding now have to ride, and we want to keep it that way without creating more riders than we need to. I know that sounds counterintuitive."

MTS staffers are also preparing to launch a marketing campaign to win back ridership once businesses are allowed to open again.