'Smart card' electronic fare system to come to Philadelphia

Smart cards are coming to Philly. Transit authority SEPTA has authorized an "open" digital fare system that will take credit cards and smartphones, doing away with tokens forever.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

Philadelphia transit authority SEPTA last week announced that it approved proposals to fund a fare modernization initiative, setting in motion the process to overhaul the transportation system for the nation's fifth largest city.

SEPTA's board also approved the purchase of 120 new Silverliner V regional rail cars and a renovation project for the Wayne Junction station.

The first proposal authorized a loan commitment agreement with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. Regional Center that will provide up to $175 million in funding for a "New Payment Technology initiative," which includes the implementation of "smart cards," related infrastructure upgrades, communications and customer service.

Today, Philadelphians must use a combination of cash and tokens to move throughout the system -- easy enough in the city's downtown Center City district, but more challenging in areas further from the center that lack banks and/or token machines. Moreover, travelers must demand (and pay for) paper transfer slips separately to move between buses, trolleys and rail.

No wonder most Philadelphians own a car.

The new system is "open," according to SEPTA, in an effort to attract new riders. It will apply to trains, buses and trolleys and accept bank cards, mobile devices and other "smart" technologies.

SEPTA says:

The new fare collection system will in some ways be similar to the E-ZPass system commonly used on our nation's turnpikes and toll roads. It will involve an electronic, account-based system that allows for a quick and effortless payment experience.

Instead of using an E-ZPass device, riders will be able to use bank-issued contactless credit or debit cards, cell phones, or other contactless devices to pay a fare. Riders will also have the option of using prepaid cards that allow users to draw down from an available balance, purchase calendar passes and reload as necessary.

The underlying technology is open loop and non-proprietary to extend the benefits and convenience of day-to-day retail purchases to transit usage and enable SEPTA to integrate its network into a unified system. It is designed to improve the customer experience, reduce the reliance on cash, and enhance data collection and processing.

The system will be financed through the "The Welcome Fund," a low-cost loan program developed by the PIDC Regional Center in conjunction with CanAm Enterprises. The agency had to scramble for funds after 25 percent of its planned outlay was cut from the Fiscal Year 2011 Capital Budget.

SEPTA says it will formally award the contract this summer to one of three vendors -- ACS, Cubic and Scheidt & Bachmann-- but has already upgraded fare boxes and fiber optics to handle contact-less cards.

The digitized fare system is expected to be complete in about three years, bringing Philly up to speed with other major metro areas such as Boston, Washington, New York, Chicago and Seattle.

In a video, here's a look:

Photo: Lindsey B/Flickr

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