RTD’s Quest for a Modern Fare Payment System Is 7 Years Long and Counting

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Clunky vending machines that dispense tickets to RTD customers don’t have to be the norm. Photo: David Sachs

It’s been about seven years since RTD set out to provide its passengers with what the agency calls a smart card — a modern, streamlined way to pay for transit. At least the idea was modern in 2008, when the strange, long trip began. It’s 2015 and Denver transit riders still can’t add, store, and spend money for fares with a piece of plastic. Meanwhile, other cities are moving ahead with the next generation of fare payment tech, mobile ticketing, which allows people to pay with a cell phone.

So how did we get here? RTD hired Xerox to implement the smart card system in 2010, a couple of years after the agency called for bids. That contract was worth about $15 million and gave Xerox four years to deliver the program. But as of this March, that cost had grown to $21 million, with RTD officials authorizing more money for Xerox.

To confuse matters, RTD does offer smart cards to certain customers through its EcoPass and CollegePass programs. These cards were delivered as part of the Xerox deal, but are solely for organizations, like businesses and universities, that receive a fare discount for buying them in bulk. Each card carries a chip that allows employees or college students to tap it on bus sensors, but adding value to them isn’t an option.

Modern fare payment technologies are not a frill. They streamline the passenger experience, making transit more intuitive and user-friendly — and in some ways, faster.

Take Chicago. Last year, the city’s transit agency launched a pilot mobile ticketing option that lets riders buy fares through smartphones and immediately board a bus. Not only is this a convenient way to buy a fare, it also speeds the boarding process for riders who pay via mobile, making the buses run faster for everyone.

To buy a fare in Denver, you have to pay for it online and receive a card via snail mail, go to a kiosk, or pay on the bus, which slows everything down and discourages would-be transit users. To develop the mobile ticketing option, Chicago paid a firm called Cubic $2.5 million; it costs an additional $16,000 per month to operate. Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are also trying out mobile ticketing platforms at a relatively low cost through app developers like GlobalSherpa.

RTD officials say the smart card will be ready in 2016, two years behind schedule, when the agency’s new fare structure goes into effect. Assuming the project meets the new deadline, Denver still shouldn’t stand pat. Now is the time to start developing mobile ticketing options like other cities. Otherwise, by the time Denver transit riders can pay with their phones, that technology will be obsolete.

This post was changed to correct the following: Cubic was paid for the mobile ticketing option, not GlobalSherpa, which is a sub-contractor on the project.

  • mckillio

    I’m a monthly pass holder, not ecopass, and my biggest gripe is that if I forget my pass they have no way to look me up and confirm that I have a monthly pass. They just give you a ticket, on top of your monthly payment of $140+

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