Penn Medicine, Drexel and Wawa provide free SEPTA passes to employees

Penn Medicine, Drexel University and Wawa will soon offer thousands of their employees free monthly SEPTA passes to travel on all public transit system services in a bid to increase ridership, officials said Monday.

The move comes as the system’s ridership remains well below where it was before the coronavirus pandemic turned daily life upside down in March 2020. Fare receipts have plummeted, and like many transit companies across the country, SEPTA has relied on emergency federal assistance to keep operations running.

There are a few signs that recent gasoline price spikes — averaging $4.32 on Monday in the Philadelphia area — could push some drivers back to buses and trains, but it’s too early to say for sure.

In a longer game to win back drivers, Penn Medicine, Drexel and Wawa have agreed to pay $140 each for six months’ worth of passes for about 15,600 eligible workers, SEPTA officials said. The six-month demonstration project begins May 1 with a plan to make the agreement permanent and, if successful, expand it to other employers.

An “Anywhere” pass, which provides access to all transit services and regional trains, typically costs $204 per month for a single passenger.

The program will be known as SEPTA Key Advantage. Individuals wishing to take advantage can have a key card loaded by their employer or have the cash balance loaded onto an already active card.

“We believe this product will enable us to make public transportation a habit again,” said Erik Johanson, Director of Operating Budgets at SEPTA. “We’re putting passes in the hands of people who now have a financial incentive to use them,” considering the cost of fuel and the amount they would otherwise spend on parking.

On February 28, SEPTA carried an average of 507,000 weekday passengers, or about 51% of the drivers who used it at the same time in 2019.

Such partnerships have been successful in other cities. The Seattle transit system gets about 60% of its fare revenue from employers who subsidize their workers’ trips, Johanson said.

“Participation in this pilot program is consistent with Drexel’s ongoing commitment to improving sustainability practices at the university and being part of the solution to climate change,” said John Fry, president of Drexel University, in a statement.

Dave Simonetti, Senior Director of Store Operations at Wawa, said, “We value the public transit system and are proud to play a role in supporting the recovery from the pandemic.”

SEPTA will generate about $2.1 million in guaranteed fare revenue for six months, or about what it would generate from drivers who work for the three employers and buy passes at full price, Johanson said. The hope is that workers will continue to use the transit system long after the pilot ends, said general manager Leslie S. Richards.

“We will reduce traffic congestion, reduce demand for parking, and provide companies with a powerful recruitment tool as they compete to hire and retain talent and shape their return-to-office plans,” Richards said.

For fiscal 2023, which begins July 1, SEPTA is expected to have service frequency of 96% of pre-COVID levels for transit services and 75% for Regional Rail, Johanson said. Customer surveys have shown that service frequency is a top priority for users of public transport.

Penn Medicine plans to provide approximately 10,000 employees at its University City facilities, including the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and Penn Presbyterian Hospital, with access to the program. Drexel University will make it available to about 3,800 workers, and Wawa will offer passes to 1,800 workers in city stores.

The project is “a creative, bold investment in ridership building and putting our city back on track,” said City Council Member Helen Gym, who was involved in discussions on the project. “It’s good for employees, good for employers and good for the environment.”

“Institutional passport programs are an important way the Philadelphia area can get more residents to transit again, and this will be a critical part of that [our] economic recovery when we get out of COVID-19,” said Jon Geeting, an executive committee member of Transit Forward Philadelphia, a coalition of public transit advocates.

According to SEPTA, sales of its weekly passes rose 14% in the first two weeks of March, coinciding with the rise in retail gasoline prices. At the same time, however, the agency was offering a 25% discount off the regular price, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused the increase. This promotion ends on Tuesday evening.

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