PATH and NJ TRANSIT routes overlap in several areas, which provides convenience for riders when either service experiences a major disruption. For example, if there’s a problem in the North River Tunnels, NJ TRANSIT passengers at Newark Penn Station can instead take PATH to 33rd Street. It’s faster and easier than waiting for NJ TRANSIT to arrange a rail replacement bus service. When PATH has to suspend service to 33rd Street (as happened this morning), passengers can take NJ TRANSIT rail services to Newark Penn Station, or bus services to Hoboken. To ease the process, both agencies have a cross-honoring arrangement in place which they put into effect in the event of a major disruption. Now, as I understand it, the concept behind cross-honoring is that passengers pay the same fare they would if their service were not disrupted. It’s not a free ride, but you don’t have to pay any more than you would ordinarily. But how does that work in practice?
NJ TRANSIT doesn’t use any electronic fare media, so it’s not hard for PATH to collect fares from NJ TRANSIT passengers. In all likelihood, most will probably have a monthly pass, so all that is necessary is to check validity of the pass. But on PATH, valid fare media are Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards, SmartLink, and SmartLink Gray. Except in the case of riders with SmartLink cards who have loaded a pass on their cards, PATH riders travelling on NJ TRANSIT services where cross-honoring is in effect should pay the same fare as if they were riding PATH. Just having PATH riders present their MetroCard, SmartLink card, or SmartLink Gray card doesn’t really work. It amounts to a free ride, which is suboptimal.
So, how can this be fixed? For SmartLink and SmartLink Gray, it’s not too hard to provide a mobile device that can be used to collect fares on NJ TRANSIT routes. But what about Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards? The MetroCard automatic fare collection system simply doesn’t include any sort of portable equipment. A portable terminal for the MetroCard would have to be engineered from the ground up, and considering that the MetroCard will be replaced in the next few years, and that cross-honoring is not an every-day occurrence, it may not be worth the effort.
Cross-honoring between PATH and NJ TRANSIT is a good practice, but not if it results in free rides being given out, along with a loss of accountability, loss of revenue, and inability to provide good passenger counts. What’s the solution? There’s no perfect solution to the problem. It’d be expensive for PATH to pay to equip NJ TRANSIT staff with equipment for deducting rides from MetroCards, SmartLink cards, and SmartLink Gray cards, considering that cross-honoring does not occur all that often, and that some custom engineering work would be required. However, anecdotal reports support the notion that the lack of proper fare collection when cross-honoring is in effect creates operational problems, when front-line staff don’t know how to collect fares from passengers. If PATH is serious about shunting passengers to other services rather than running their own rail replacement buses, they should ensure that appropriate provisions are made for fare collection. It may not be cheap, but it will provide needed accountability (which having passengers flash their SmartLink cards doesn’t).