Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Pennsylvania city may go fare free

Future Centre County bus riders may have the option of showing identification instead of fumbling for change each time they board the bus.
CDT/Christopher Weddle: A rider boards a CATA bus along College Avenue.
A state-funded study set to start later this year will analyze the universal access concept, which allows mass transit users to ride without paying a fare at that time.
While the “U-pass” system often targets student populations, the study also will analyze a scenario for broader Centre Area Transportation Authority bus riders.
Penn State Altoona uses the system with the city’s Amtran bus service. Students ride free with their student IDs and riders older than 65 can ride free with a special Amtran ID card.
Greg Kausch, CATA and Centre Region Council of Governments planner, presented the plan for the study to COG’s Transportation and Land Use Committee on Monday, and has done so elsewhere to collect feedback and answer questions.
The study, which Kausch said he expects to begin in late summer or early fall, will last about 20 months. CATA received a $100,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative to pay for it.
L. Eric Bernier, CATA’s service development manager, attended the meeting Monday and said universal access is not new, but the time is right. Kausch added the study works well with Penn State’s Intermodal Transportation Concept, which seeks to make the University Park campus more pedestrian-friendly, with fewer vehicles and better mass transit.
“We hear this referred to as free transit, and it’s certainly not free,” Kausch said.
“It still involves a very large investment in the transit system, and that has to come from somewhere.”
Committee Chairman Jeff Luck, of Patton Township, expressed concern about losing revenue from visitors to the area who ride the bus, though he said he supports the concept.
Luck also raised the issue of losing revenue from the “mini-universal access” system already in place between CATA and apartment complexes, which pay CATA for bus passes, then provide them to their mostly-student tenants.
Bernier said CATA receives $1 million in revenue from apartment agreements annually and there are 6,000 to 6,500 bedrooms under contract, typically with one person in each.
“That’s probably held back efforts to universal access,” he said. “I can’t imagine any scenario where that would go away and the municipalities would pick it up.”
Kausch said students have questioned whether university fees would increase to pay for a universal access plan. While other university communities have done that, the funding question is “tricky” and the study will analyze options, he said.
“The majority of ‘fare-free’ systems in the U.S. do utilize some sort of enhanced funding from a local university, whether that comes from student fees or some other source,” he said. “Others employ a transportation-dedicated sales tax.”
Penn State Altoona spokeswoman Shari Routch said the program with Amtran, about a decade old, is funded in part through the bus company, the campus and the student activities fee.
“I do know ridership has increased every year that the program has been in place,” she said, noting recent increased course offerings in downtown Altoona. “The students have really embraced the concept of taking the bus from one campus to another.”
The local study also will consider how the system could benefit CATA.
“Moving into the more abstract, universal access would result in increased operational efficiency and decreased fare collection costs,” Kausch said. “Some of these savings could be put back into operating service.” --CentreDaily

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