• U.S.

Sick and Inglorious Transit

6 minute read
James Kelly

In most big cities, fares and frustrations are rising

Irate New Yorkers are pushing past the token booths and ducking under the turnstiles. In Philadelphia, commuter trains are plastered with white cardboard notices announcing the end of service on Aug. 30. In Chicago, suburbanites are so infuriated by fare increases that they are threatening to desert their leafy outposts.

“I’m going to move into the city,” vows Bob Madden, 24, a printing company salesman who lives 24 miles from downtown in Deerfield, Ill. “I could probably afford to commute, but I’ve got better things to do with my money.”

In a clutch of the nation’s largest cities, mass-transit systems—already rumbling toward hell—have never seemed closer to that infernal destination.

Plagued by crumbling equipment, dismal service and deepening deficits, several cities boosted fares this month just to keep their systems sputtering along. As a further sign that there may be no light at the end of the mass-transit tunnel, the Administration promises to phase out by 1985 federal operating subsidies for bus and rail systems, now running at $1.1 billion a year and making up 13% of total costs.

No system seems closer to stopping dead in its tracks than New York City’s, the largest in the nation with 5 million daily passengers. With an operating deficit of $500 million for this fiscal year, the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) two weeks ago upped subway and bus fares from 60¢ to 75¢ and raised the prices of commuter tickets on Conrail and the Long Island Railroad by an average of 25%. The MTA also threatened to hike fares to $1 by mid-July unless the state legislature covered an estimated shortfall of $331 million The legislature finally approved a Band-Aid package of new taxes last week, including a .75% tax on the gross receipts of oil companies, that will raise $800 million over the next two years. But MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch is making no promises that fares will not go up again before 1983.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” he shrugs.

At the same time, the New York Transit Authority is proposing to cut back its maintenance program and curtail service. The city’s subways are already a Stygian underworld, with filthy, overcrowded trains careening at high speeds one moment, then stalling for eternities with lights out and passengers steaming.

“When I first rode the subways, I thought I was on a prison train,” says Sashi Ray, who emigrated from India in 1976. “Now, when I compare the streets of Calcutta to the subways, I must confess the subways are by far the worse.”

In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) raised fares on the city’s bus, trolley and subway lines from 65¢ to 70¢ last week—the third hike since 1978, when a ride cost 45¢. If that were not bad enough, Conrail is threatening to shut down its commuter lines around Philadelphia, which carry 65,000 people on weekdays, unless SEPTA increases its annual subsidy from $93 million to $99 million. SEPTA Chairman David Girard-diCarlo insists that his agency is broke and may seek a court order to keep Conrail behind the throttle. If he fails, SEPTA may have to run the trains. Complains Girard-diCarlo: “We can’t rush into operating a $100 million operation overnight.”

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is considering upping bus fares from 25¢ to 50¢ and subway tokens from 50¢ to 75¢ on Aug. 1. Since most riders take both bus and subway on their way to work, the average round trip will cost $2.50. Admits Phil Shapiro, staff director of the MBTA’S advisory board: “These hikes may end up not being competitive with the automobile.” The MBTA appears to have no choice: the agency will exhaust its annual budget of $337 million by Thanksgiving.

In Chicago, fares on the city’s buses and subways rose by a dime to 90¢ last week, a 50% boost over last December and now the highest in the nation. Transfers cost an extra 10¢, and most riders end up paying $2 for a round trip. The region’s 140,000 suburban commuters must dig even more deeply into their wallets: the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) raised its fares last week by an average 57%. Chicago Attorney Laurie Shatsoff last December bought a condominium in Vernon Hills, about 40 miles outside the city, and since then she has watched the cost of her monthly train pass rocket from $59 to $141.95. “It’s now like my mortgage,” she protests. “I’m just glad my secretary lives in the city. Otherwise, I couldn’t afford to pay her.”

The Chicago fare hikes are in part the result of sniping between the state legislature and Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne; when Springfield offered the Chicago Transit Authority $425 million over the next three years, Byrne huffed that an additional $45 million was needed, and the entire aid package collapsed. The city’s fare hike even poses its own mechanical problem: the dollar bills deposited by bus riders jam the fare boxes. To combat the problem, CTA officials instructed its ticket takers to hand out Susan B. Anthony dollars as change, but passengers are refusing to accept the unpopular coin. “I don’t give them out, people complain too much,” says one cashier.

In Atlanta, fares rose from 50¢ to 60¢ on July 1, and may jump again if the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) has to pay its bus drivers an additional cost of living allowance. In Houston, maintenance men ripped out the sealed windows of a covey of new $86,000 buses last year when the air conditioning broke down, and riders this summer are cooled by the occasional breeze—and drenched by the occasional rainstorm.

Once among the finest hi the industrialized world, the nation’s urban mass-transit systems obviously are no longer bound for glory. Riders, already deserting subways and buses in many cities, may start leaving in droves. Says Costas Servas, a frustrated passenger on New York’s Seventh Avenue line: “The people have had enough.” —By James Kelly. Reported by Jay Branegan/Chicago and Dean Brelis/New York, with other U.S. bureaus

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