Finally, SEPTA's getting 'smart'

Posted: July 21, 2009

THIS IS the dawning of the Age of SEPTArius!


Philadelphia, the last major American city where transit riders line up to pay cash for tokens, is on the verge of getting a high-tech fare system that will make riding SEPTA as easy as using E-ZPass on the turnpike.

Or as easy as riding public transit in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle, where smart cards have replaced tokens, and long lines for tokens, and discovering too late that you don't have exact change for tokens and the toll-booth attendant doesn't make change for tokens and you're stuck.

Or as easy as buying morning coffee at Wawa, or a pack of gum at CVS, or a lawnmower at Home Depot or just about anything in Philly - except a SEPTA fare.

The token, which has been a pain-in-the-mass-transit here for decades, could go the way of horse-drawn trolleys by 2011, said John McGee, SEPTA's chief officer of new-payment technology.

He is reviewing proposals for a token-free future, in which lines and exact change will be replaced by a smart card, imbedded with an "electronic-purse" computerized chip, fed by an online account.

"I would like for folks to be able to pay for a SEPTA trip by using whatever they have in their pocket - a credit/debit card, a student ID card, a cell phone with a computerized sticker that acts as a surrogate credit/debit card, whatever," he told the Daily News.

"Like the smart card, the [smart] sticker has a chip in it that the electronic sensor on the fare box reads," he said. "You could even stick it on your forehead, if you wanted to. But you'd probably want to stick it on your cell phone."

Eliminating tokens and limited-time passes "would be way better," said Sabrheya Fox, 18, yesterday, while emerging from the underground concourse at Broad and Market streets with her friend Dinah Alexander, 20.

She said that she would prefer spending her money on a smart card instead of a pass that expires every week or month. Alexander agreed. SEPTA's passes "expire before you get full use out of them," she said.

Using smart cards/stickers instead of cash fares, McGee said, will end this familiar SEPTA nightmare:

"You walk into a SEPTA El station and you have to use a vending machine that you need to spend 30 minutes on a tutorial to understand," he said. "If you walk into the El with a $10 or $20 bill, the question is: Will the vending machine make change? At many stations, if you don't have exact change, we can't accommodate you."

That's why McGee hopes that smart cards replace cash as fare instruments for most of the 325 million trips that SEPTA riders take each year.

At the entrance to the train, bus or trolley, smart cards, imbedded with a computer chip and an antenna, are simply tapped against the fare box's electronic sensor, which instantly reads the card, charges the fare and sends you on your way. It also does transfers electronically.

McGee envisions using name-brand, credit/debit smart cards, as well as SEPTA gift-type cards, where there's a fixed value, say $20, and the rider can buy more value as that $20 gets spent.

After a decade of deprivation and doomsday scenarios, SEPTA has a stable funding stream plus $190 million in federal stimulus money, and it is rockin' - new ecologically "green" buses, a new Market Street El, new Regional Rail cars on the way, rehabbing and rebuilding construction projects under way all over the system, and online, real-time train/bus info and Google-based trip planning.

Bob Lund, senior director of SEPTA's capital construction, said that $117 million in stimulus-funded projects are under way - from the $30 million rehab of the Broad Street Line's ancient Girard and Spring Garden stations beginning this week to the replacement in Montgomery County of a 1905 bridge and the rehab of two others from the 1930s.

"By the middle of August, you're going to see stimulus-projects contractors working everywhere," Lund said. "By September, we'll be full force into this. We have a very old system with a lot of needs, so the stimulus money is a very good thing."

But using tokens and paper transfers in 2009 is like using Clydesdales to pull the C bus down Broad Street. McGee looks forward to smart cards by 2011.

"Buses and trolleys will continue to have a fare box, because some of our riders will always use cash," he said. "But as new systems are deployed, there will be a diminishing number of cash users."

As proof, McGee cited the Philadelphia School District, which, he said, went from using "60,000 tokens a day to next to nothing - a few hundred a week - last year after SEPTA introduced a special school pass [swipe card] to replace them. The only ones being used were tokens that people had stashed away. That's the same thing that will happen with adult tokens."

Kimberly Robinson, 25, a native New Yorker who lives in West Philly and takes SEPTA to and from work, said, "I like [the smart card] better than tokens, honestly. It's easier to have a pass [like New York's Metrocard] where you can put money on it whenever you want."

Erica Johnson, 19, of Olney, said yesterday that smart cards would be "a lot easier" because the places that sell tokens "are sometimes closed. You can't buy them all the time."

Craig Roberts, technology-development director at the Utah Transit Authority, said that Salt Lake City, where UTA issued 210,000 contactless smart cards to students and employees of large corporations last January, is the first American city where riders can use their contactless bank credit/debit cards, as well as the transit system's cards.

Steve Frazzini, chief fare-payment officer at New York City Transit, said, "[We] have completed a very successful pilot on our largest subway line in New York City and will demonstrate a second phase at year's end that includes acceptance of contactless payment devices from all card brands and issuing banks, with real-time authorization."

Frazzini said that the next phase will include up to 275 buses and will link to a pilot with the Port Authority of NY/NJ, PATH and New Jersey Transit.

Meanwhile, back in Philly, McGee prepares to pick a smart-card partner this fall and dreams of the day when the token goes the nostalgic way of its pre-SEPTA predecessors - as this online ad at www.nycwebstore reveals:

"Philadelphia Transit Token Cufflinks - Designed for the discriminating man, these sterling silver cufflinks feature vintage Philadelphia transit tokens. Remember having a pocketful of tokens?" *

Staff writer St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.

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