SEPTA seeks federal money for "smart card" fare system

Posted: August 19, 2010

Struggling to pay for a "smart card" fare system, SEPTA is seeking more than $29 million from a new federal program designed to boost regional "livability."

SEPTA wants to award a contract by early next year for a high-tech fare system to replace its current tokens, tickets, and passes for buses, subways, and commuter trains. SEPTA expects the system to cost at least $77 million.

The agency is strapped for cash to pay for a new system, which repeatedly has been delayed.

SEPTA had hoped to get some of the money for the fare system from the state, as part of the revenue flowing from tolls on I-80. But the state's plan to toll I-80 was rejected by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

SEPTA also tried unsuccessfully to get $75 million for the fare system last year from the federal stimulus funding program.

The new $29.3 million proposal by SEPTA would use federal money to install card readers and other hardware and software on surface vehicles such as buses and trolleys. It would not be used for subways or Regional Rail trains, which would have to be provided for with other funding.

The SEPTA application for federal "TIGER II" money from the Department of Transportation stresses the regional nature of the local transit system, and the broad benefits that a new fare system would bring.

To buttress its arguments that a new fare system would improve regional livability, economic competitiveness, safety, environmental sustainability, and SEPTA's state of good repair, the transit agency is seeking endorsements from the city, state legislators, Amtrak, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and an array of institutions, from Harrah's Casino to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

SEPTA is competing with 1,345 other applicants for a $600 million pot of TIGER II federal money.

Final proposals for a new fare system are due this fall from a handful of vendors still in the running. SEPTA hopes to award a contract by early next year, chief financial officer Richard Burnfield said.

"That would take us such a leap forward," Burnfield said. "The complexity of our fare system is one of the major complaints we hear from customers."

"We're struggling not only to fix our infrastructure but to modernize it," Burnfield said. "It's extremely challenging."

With a "smart card" system, passengers would be able to wave a card with an implanted electronic chip at a sensor on a turnstile or fare box and be on their way.

SEPTA says it wants a system that will allow passengers to use credit cards, prepaid SEPTA cards, and even cell phones to pay for their trips.

The process has fallen far behind the schedule announced by SEPTA in November 2008, when the agency said it hoped to award a contract by April 2009.

Once a contract is awarded, it will take several years for a smart-card system to be installed in SEPTA vehicles.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or

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