Controversial because it would likely involve major hikes for short rides, the idea was suggested Thursday by BART Director Joel Keller, who directed BART staff to study it. He estimates that the fare would have to be between $2.40 and $2.50 to equal BART's current fare revenue, or 100 million trips now yielding $240 million to $250 million a year.
"Certainly a simple, uncomplicated fare for each person would attract additional riders," Keller said. New Yorkers seem accustomed to the idea of plunking down $2 every time they ride city subways, be it 10 blocks or 10 miles, and the Bay Area "is no less urbanized than the New York area."
The idea is just one of several that BARTstaffers are exploring in order to improve on a decades-old fare scheme loaded with surcharges that are a mystery to most riders.
One surcharge for 79 cents pays for passage through the Transbay Tube. Getting on or off at stations in San Mateo County costs $1.14 beyond the normal mileage-based formula. Airport passengers pay an extra $1.50. In January, BART directors approved a 10 cent surcharge to cover capital costs.
"It's just not very transparent," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which generally doesn't get involved in individual transit agencies' fare debates. "People just don't know any of this, and to the uninitiated, to those who don't study it, it just doesn't make any sense."
That being said, BART may be ready for a hard look at how it calculates fares, Rentschler said.
But flat fares are certain to upset supporters of affordable transit for disadvantaged riders in the area's urban core.
"A flat fare would be extremely regressive and would directly hurt the urban riders who have come to rely on BART for local trips," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition. "Working families feel that bite when it's a 10 percent increase, and you're talking about a 70 percent increase. You're talking about very real money for families who are just trying to make it in this very expensive region."
Another fare-change proposal that surfaced Thursday, likely to be much more palatable to Cohen and other advocates for urban riders, was proposed by BART Director Bob Franklin, who represents northwestern Alameda county areas that include Berkeley, parts of Oakland and San Leandro.
Franklin proposed using smart cards, which are now used by BART employees in a Stanford University-run pilot program, to keep track of how many rides a passenger has used and give free rides to anyone who has paid for 40 rides or so.
Franklin also decried Keller's idea, saying it would "really disadvantage shorter-distance riders, because they would be subsidizing (someone else's) longer trip."