Transit Briefs: Metrolinx, Amtrak, SEPTA, MBTA, WMATAWritten by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
Metrolinx’s contactless payment hits milestone after recent launch. Also, Idaho leaders want Amtrak rail service to return to the Mountain West; the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) offers new way for customers to report cleanliness issues on system; the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) launches online applications for TAP and blind access customers; and a D.C. Council committee advances bill that would give D.C. residents $100 a month to ride the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Metrorail and Metrobus.
Metrolinx recently announced that more than 100,000 people have tapped their credit card to pay for GO, Brampton, MiWay and Oakville Transit since the new fare payment launched on Aug. 11. According to Metrolinx, this is all part of the agency’s work to bring even more fare payment options to transit customers.
According to an Idaho Statesman report, Idaho’s elected officials have renewed their efforts to bring passenger trains back to the Mountain West, after President Joe Biden signed into law the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) last year, which includes funding to expand the nation’s passenger rail network.
In recent weeks, according to the Idaho Statesman report, Boise and other state leaders met with officials from Amtrak to discuss the possible return of the former Pioneer Line that ran between Seattle and Chicago, with stops in Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City and Denver. The route ran for 20 years before it was discontinued in 1997 as “a casualty of federal budget cuts, in part because of low ridership.” Passenger trains served the region for decades before as well, ahead of Amtrak’s launch in 1971, according to the Idaho Statesman report.
According to the Idaho Statesman report, August meetings with Amtrak took place in Boise and Pocatello, with Treasure Valley cities and members of Idaho’s federal delegation “then sending a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) asking that the shorter leg between Salt Lake City and Boise be considered for a future route, as well.”
According to the Idaho Statesman report, Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg “has for years been advocating for the return of rail service through the historic Boise Depot.” She told the Idaho Statesman that “while Amtrak has long left huge swaths of the Mountain West out of its future service plans, that may now be changing as the federal government injects previously unheard-of amounts of money into the nation’s rail.”
“They are recognizing that this is maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity to reestablish rail in ways in the U.S. that we haven’t seen since the 1960s,” Clegg said.
The infrastructure package “guarantees $66 billion toward rail projects–the largest investment in Amtrak in more than 50 years,” according to the Biden administration, the Idaho Statesman reported. Of that funding, $36 billion is reserved for expansion and upgrades of passenger service lines between cities.
The law “directs another $36 billion in discretionary spending toward Amtrak’s capital and operational needs, including $7.5 billion more for intercity network development, which could entail reestablishing the Pioneer Line or some derivative to help restore train travel through Southern Idaho. In total, the law commits as much as $102 billion over the next five years toward strengthening and modernizing the nation’s rail system,” according to the Idaho Statesman report.
Yet another $15 million is designated for studying discontinued long-distance Amtrak routes, defined as 750 miles in distance or longer, according to the Idaho Statesman report. The law “emphasizes prioritizing those routes terminated after April 1971, with results of that study due to Congress by November 2023.”
“As a discontinued Amtrak long-distance route, the Pioneer Line will be evaluated as part of this study,” William Wong, an FRA spokesperson, told the Idaho Statesman by email. “A website for the study will be launched in the coming weeks, and, currently, FRA is meeting with stakeholders as it prepares to launch it.”
Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch voted in favor of the infrastructure law and, according to their respective spokespeople, also are “longtime supporters of the return of train travel through several of the state’s most populous cities,” according to the Idaho Statesman report. Both also signed the interest letter sent to the FRA earlier this month, along with 30 other Idaho state and local officials, including Gov. Brad Little, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and 11 other city mayors.
“Idahoans and residents of the Mountain West would benefit from exploration into providing more reliable, safe and affordable means of transportation,” Crapo said in a written statement to the Idaho Statesman. “An intercity rail service would add another element of healthy transportation infrastructure aimed at promoting economic growth and improving personal mobility and quality of life.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), each voted against the federal infrastructure package, according to the Idaho Statesman report. Simpson previously told the Idaho Statesman that he “supported investments in infrastructure needs, but the funding sources in the Democratic administration’s infrastructure package did not cover the costs of the entire bill, which led him to vote against it.”
“Any serious attempt at a long-term bipartisan infrastructure bill would include comprehensive funding mechanisms and not be tied to unrelated bills,” Simpson said in a statement to the Idaho Statesman in August.
But Simpson, whose congressional district includes part of Boise and East Idaho, “signed onto the recent passenger rail interest letter and has always supported the return of the Pioneer Line,” an office spokesperson said, according to the Idaho Statesman report. Fulcher so far is noncommittal. “Congressman Fulcher will assess the details of any proposal regarding the Amtrak Pioneer Line on its merits,” Daniel Tellez, Fulcher’s spokesperson, told the Idaho Statesman by email. “Any proposal Rep. Fulcher considers will have to be fiscally sound and not further inflame our inflation crisis.”
According to the Idaho Statesman report, Crapo previously worked with fellow U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to “commission a study in 2009 about restoring daily service of the Pioneer Line.” At that time, the Idaho Statesman says, the one-time capital costs to revive the route between Salt Lake City and Seattle, with stops in Nampa, Boise and Pocatello, were estimated at $382 million, and up to $493 million for longer-distance alternatives. Annual operations costs were estimated at $36.6 million to $46.2 million. Coupled with an estimated 102,000 passengers per year for the Salt Lake City to Seattle option, which would generate $11.6 million in revenue, the line was expected to operate annually at no less than a $25 million loss. The “financial viability” of such a plan was left to federal and state policymakers to decide, though potential funding sources were never identified, according to the Idaho Statesman report.
For decades, according to the Idaho Statesman report, some members of Congress have pushed to cut Amtrak’s funding, arguing that “the system should instead turn a profit.” Last year, Amtrak released its 15-year network expansion strategy, which did not include new service lines in Idaho. The plan, however, intended to be a starting point, said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesperson.
With the new pot of money available through the infrastructure law, the agency is “encouraging cities across the U.S. that are seeking passenger rail service to speak up and be included in the potential expansion,” Magliari said. Although the Pioneer Line was “mothballed a quarter century ago, the feasibility of such a route has greatly changed in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions,” according to the Idaho Statesman report.
“That was 1997, and if you look at the population growth in Salt Lake City and Boise, and maybe Pocatello, it’s a different world today,” Magliari told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “It is the best time for starting new service in more than 50 years.” Some of the biggest proponents of reestablishing passenger trains in Idaho are leaders in Boise, according to the Idaho Statesman report.
According to the Idaho Statesman report, the Boise City Council passed a resolution in June 2021 in favor of returning rail service, and the city is also a partner in the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Working Group, which “advocates for bringing trains back to the region.”
“All across our city and the region, people are excited about rail,” McLean said last week on Twitter. “We’ll continue to find and build the partnerships we need to bring the Pioneer Line back.”
One program Boise city leaders have emphasized is the Corridor Identification Program, which is “designed to identify previously operational service routes or new routes that are less than 750 miles in length,” according to the Idaho Statesman report.
Boise, according to the Idaho Statesman report, also has set goals to cut its carbon footprint down to zero by 2050, and the city says the transportation sector makes up nearly half of Boise’s emissions. As the city pushes to convert to electric vehicles and expand bus service, rail is another avenue that has the potential to cut down on U.S. carbon emissions.
“During peak periods when railroads are congested and rail carriers … have more passengers, rail is up to 10 times more energy efficient than a person driving,” Biden said last year. “We have a huge opportunity here to provide fast, safe, reliable and clean transportation in this country.”
Already, Amtrak trains consume less energy per passenger mile than trucks, cars and airplanes, according to a company sustainability report released this year. Amtrak still plans to spend billions of dollars from the infrastructure law on upgrading its fleet to locomotives and rail cars that reduce energy use and emissions even more, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said in the report.
In addition, Amtrak last week pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across its national network by 2045.
Proponents argue that, for the Treasure Valley, the return of passenger rail service would solve a practical transportation issue, too, according to the Idaho Statesman report.
“The Boise area’s travel system is fragile,” Clegg told the Idaho Statesman, “relying on airplane travel—which is vulnerable to cancellations and other issues—and long drives, which can be difficult in the wintertime.” Mountain West states, according to the Idaho Statesman report, also have seen reductions in the number of daily flights and in the number of air routes.
“Bringing rail back would provide another redundant system in the system that makes the whole transportation system less fragile and less subject to disruption,” Clegg said, adding that “rail service provides economic benefits and is by far the most carbon efficient means of travel.
According to the Idaho Statesman report, “the city expects to receive guidance from the FRA in the coming weeks on cost estimates, service development plans and next steps,” Bre Brush, the mayor’s transportation adviser, said at a Sept. 13 City Council work session. “Any new routes selected by the FRA will be eligible for technical assistance from the agency,” Clegg said at the work session.
SEPTA announced on Sept. 26 that customers can now report cleanliness issues throughout the system by scanning a QR Code with their smartphone.
The QR Vehicle Cleanliness Survey, according to the agency, asks customers to rate the cleanliness of their bus, train or trolley. The QR codes will be posted on a limited number of vehicles on each mode. Customers can find them near vehicle exit doors.
Once the customer scans the code, SEPTA says the application will direct customers to complete a two-minute survey. The data is then received by SEPTA’s operations vehicle maintenance group which will know how long the vehicle has been in service at the time of survey completion. There is also a comments section at the end of the survey for the rider to offer additional information.
“Data collected from this survey is an essential tool allowing us a quicker response time when addressing these issues,” said SEPTA CEO and General Manager Leslie S. Richards. “Employing this technology stresses our commitment to providing a clean and safe environment for our customers throughout the system.”
MBTA recently announced that, beginning Sept. 19, eligible riders can now apply online for a new, renewal, or replacement TAP CharlieCard or Blind Access CharlieCard. People with disabilities (including low vision) and Medicare cardholders are eligible for reduced MBTA fares with a TAP CharlieCard and people who are legally blind are eligible for free MBTA fares with a Blind Access CharlieCard.
With the launch of these two online applications, the MBTA says it now accepts online applications for the following free/reduced fare programs: Blind Access, TAP, Senior, and Youth Pass. Riders, the agency adds, will still be able to apply in-person at the CharlieCard Store for Senior, Blind Access, and TAP as they do now (and can make online reservations to visit the CharlieCard Store), and can also visit the MBTA Mobility Center for online application support. Riders seeking to apply for a TAP CharlieCard by mail or at the CharlieCard Store can download the updated application at the MBTA’s Transportation Access Pass webpage online.
The online applications for the MBTA’s free/reduced fare programs offer riders “a convenient method to apply for and receive a new free/reduced fare CharlieCard without having to visit the CharlieCard Store,” the agency says. Riders can apply to these respective programs remotely and easily online from a computer or mobile device in English, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese. Each application allows applicants to securely enter their personal information and upload the required documents, such as a photo ID and eligibility documentation. All online applications are accessible to screen readers and were tested by free/reduced fare riders to ensure usability. Riders who submit their email address as part of their application will receive application status notifications, including details on how to use their card if approved.
In addition to the online applications, the MBTA recently removed rider photos, names, and expiration dates from Senior CharlieCards for people 65 and older to “simplify the card fulfillment process for these riders.” Riders who apply for a new or replacement Senior CharlieCard will now receive the new Reduced Fare CharlieCards for Seniors, which are valid for eight years. Riders with current Senior CharlieCards can utilize them until they expire.
“I am pleased to announce the launch of the online application portal to allow all of our reduced fare riders online access, which provides reduced fare riders with broader access and more convenience,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak. “We have made significant investments in equipment, staff resources, and technology solutions to improve the experience of our riders with a specific focus on riders with disability- and age-based needs. Through our Fare Transformation journey, we continue to improve the experience of riders as we work towards modernization by investing in state of good repair and capital improvements that transform the system into a modern digital payment system.”
“Greater accessibility to MBTA resources supports independence and self-determination of individuals who are blind,” said Massachusetts Commission for the Blind Commissioner David D’Arcangelo. “We are pleased to collaborate with the MBTA on streamlining the process of obtaining and updating our Blind Access Cards. This is a game-changer for our consumers who no longer have to travel to an office in order to receive the cards, offering them a more equitable and efficient solution to travel in Massachusetts.”
A D.C. Council committee on Sept. 26 advanced a bill that would give most D.C. residents up to $100 a month to be used for WMATA‘S Metrorail and Metrobus, the DCist reported.
The council’s five-person transportation committee “unanimously” voted to approve the bill, sending it to the full legislature for debate and a first vote as early as October.
During a brief discussion on Monday afternoon, lawmakers “touted the measure as a means to boost ridership and offer the transit agency a steady source of additional revenue from D.C., especially as it navigates financial difficulties caused by the pandemic,” according to the DCist report.
“I think that this is a major step forward. First, we need to help our transit system. It’s in a lot of trouble, and this will do that. The second thing is, it will increase ridership and increase transit use with all the benefits that accrue,” said Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the committee chairperson. “It’s not cheap, but the repayment to us as a community will be worth it.”
According to the DCist report, the bill, first introduced by Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) in 2020, would “provide a monthly $100 subsidy to D.C. residents to be used on Metro, building on the existing Kids Ride Free program, which serves more than 50,000 D.C. school children on an annual basis.”
“While free public transit has been adopted more broadly in parts of Europe, U.S. cities from Olympia, Washington to Kansas City, Missouri have in recent years tested the idea. In Montgomery County, Ride On buses were free until July 2022 as part of a two-year program, and earlier this year Boston eliminated fares on three bus lines for two years,” the DCist reported.
According to the DCist report, under the bill, “qualifying residents would get the initial $100 subsidy, and get monthly installments thereafter to keep them at that level. Any expenses above the monthly subsidy would have to be covered by the user. According to the committee, the $100 a month would cover the transit needs of 92% of adult users in the city.”
The legislation, would also “create a Transit Equity Fund that would dedicate $10 million a year for the D.C. Department of Transportation to ‘improve transit infrastructure and service in areas of high transit need or historically underserved communities,’ according to a committee report, thus ensuring reliable service,” the DCist reported.
In comments during the hearing, Allen said the subsidy would help Metro and its users.
“As we are faced with the economic recovery, it’s absolutely imperative [to get people back on Metro]. Metro’s success is so closely linked to the District’s success and frankly, the region’s success. It’s how our residents get to and from work. It’s how neighbors move around their community. It’s how students get to and from school. It’s what small businesses rely on to get customers to and from their storefronts, as well as their employees,” he said.
According to the DCist, initial plans to offer the subsidy only to lower-income residents were scrapped because of what the committee said would be a costly and “significant administrative burden” to verify incomes. Additionally, it said, “making the subsidy immediately accessible to all income levels would still disproportionately benefit lower income residents, who are less likely to have access to workplace subsidies and spend a higher portion of their incomes on transportation.”
According to a study on the legislation by the council’s budget office, 78% of D.C. residents do not currently receive any transit subsidies from their employer. Additionally, white residents are more than twice as likely to get a workplace subsidy, and higher-income riders were five times more likely to receive a subsidy than lower-income users, the DCist reported.
The legislation, according to the DCist report, would “exclude federal employees who receive transit subsidies, mostly because those subsidies are currently worth more than $100 a month and the committee said beneficiaries would be unlikely to opt out of them.”
The biggest question mark around the bill, the DCist reports, is the price tag, which the city’s chief financial officer pegged at $373 million for the first four years. While the legislation says the costs will be covered by the additional (and unexpected) revenue that D.C. has been taking on a yearly basis, the committee report also concedes it is “by no means a predictable funding source” and could decrease significantly or disappear altogether if the economy sours, according to the DCist report.
Still, the committee says the proposed funding is “a creative solution that would potentially allow scaling up this large program rapidly without having to raise taxes or fees.”
“As our budget grows, we’re going to be giving it back to our residents,” said Allen. “We’re going to help them pay to get to and from work, to get to the doctor’s office, to get those groceries or to visit family in the region. I’m really excited about what this program is going to mean for district residents who struggle to pay for all their needs and who rely on public transportation.”
According to the DCist report, Councilmember Christina Henderson (I-At Large) stressed that “while the subsidy could help boost ridership, the region would have to keep pushing to ensure that Metro service is reliable.” She also said Maryland and Virginia “would have to start considering their own options to help bring people back to transit.”
“We need to figure out how do we get people to get back on public transportation in the numbers that at least we saw pre-pandemic. For some folks, it’s cost as a barrier, but for a lot of people is around the reliability piece,” she said. “As we modernize the system and look forward, I think this is one tool in our toolbox to help sort of boost ridership and to add some additional funding. But if any other jurisdictions are listening, it is going to require that all of us, especially Maryland, Virginia, are doing their part as well.”