Philadelphia's SEPTA loses $30 million bid for electronic fare system

Philadelphia's public transit authority, SEPTA, has lost its bid for $30 million in federal funds for a new electronic fare system. The hurdle shows the pitfalls American cities face in pursuing smarter technology.

Call it a token effort.

Philadelphia's public transit authority, SEPTA, has lost its bid for nearly $30 million in federal TIGER II funds from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to help pay for a new $100 million electronic fare system, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The city -- the fifth or sixth-largest in the nation, depending on how you measure -- still uses tokens, which have been in use in America since the 1800s, according to the authority's own spokesman.

The bid envisioned a card with an implanted electronic chip that could be waved at a sensor on a turnstile or fare box. SEPTA wants a system that accommodates bank cards, prepaid SEPTA cards and even mobile phones.

The failed bid puts the agency in a pickle to finance a smarter fare system for its buses, trolleys and trains. Currently, SEPTA plans to award a contract for the system "early next year," reports the Inquirer.

Earlier this month, we spoke with a company called ACS -- one of the companies in the running for Philly's new fare system, alongside Scheidt & Bachmann and Cubic Transportation -- to discuss the business models that transit authorities could use to fund "intelligent," next-generation transit systems. One of those models: let the system manufacturer front the costs for construction and operation in exchange for a revenue-sharing agreement.

Major U.S. cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. are among those interested in such an arrangement.

But it's as much a political game as it is a financial one: SEPTA hinged its hopes for a next-gen fare system on anticipated revenues from new tolls on Interstate 80, but the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected Pennsylvania's tolling plan in April.

What's more, the incoming Pennsylvania governor -- Tom Corbett, a Republican -- has promised to balance the budget, leaving little room for major investments like transit.

Can SEPTA get its act together? It's unclear, but the situation is a great example of the many moving parts that must come together to ensure that America's cities keep current.

Photo: Lindsey B/Flickr

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