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Still coming soon: The SEPTA Key transit smart-card

When SEPTA's new smart card debuts, the need for exact change, tokens, or monthly passes on public transit will be a thing of the past.

The new SEPTA Key fare system, under which smart cards will replace tokens and passes, is to debut next year, about three years later than expected.
The new SEPTA Key fare system, under which smart cards will replace tokens and passes, is to debut next year, about three years later than expected.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

When SEPTA's new smart card debuts, the need for exact change, tokens, or monthly passes on public transit will be a thing of the past.

SEPTA Key will work on buses, subways, and trolleys. It will draw directly from a bank account or serve as a debit card. Don't want to carry yet another card? The system will work with smartphones and some credit cards, too.

And it's coming next year, officials said. Really. For sure this time.

"I know we've been saying, 'It's coming, it's coming,' " said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA's deputy general manager. "It is coming."

Regular riders are ready to get on board with SEPTA Key.

"I'd welcome [the changes], actually," said Dave Metzger, 64, a University of Pennsylvania professor studying addiction and HIV infection who travels by subway from home in South Philadelphia to the school and a treatment center.

"Right now, I buy tokens to get through the week. It would be a lot easier if I could do it online," he said.

Jennifer Davin, 33, a health technician, uses the subway three days a week, she said. Right now, the best way for her to travel is to pay with cash, and SEPTA fare collectors don't make change.

"The price I pay for three days is less than buying a pass, so I have to carry the exact change on me every day," she said.

Currently, gray kiosks at subway stops bear signs reading, "Testing, Testing." Those machines should go live in March, when the Key card will offer monthly and weekly passes. Cards with more flexibility, including use for single rides, are due by the end of summer.

Passengers will buy SEPTA Key with cash or credit cards and board transit by tapping their cards on scanners. Personalized versions will work like credit cards. If they are lost or stolen, users can put a hold on them and get replacements.

If the latest timetable holds, the smart card will debut about three years later than expected. The delays, depending on whom you talk to, are the result of the industry's immaturity in the United States, a lack of technical know-how on SEPTA's part, and the speed at which technology is moving.

SEPTA officials and some observers say the transit agency is installing one of the most sophisticated systems of its type in the country, one designed to manage the fare structures of subways, trolleys, buses, and trains and modernize a system so antiquated that it still uses tokens, which most big cities ditched years ago.

It has involved installing hardware and software, updating infrastructure, and changing the organization's culture.

"We're going from worst to first," Burnfield said. "We're now jumping forward into state-of-the-art new technology for our fare system."

Such a leap was bound to be fraught with complications, observers said.

"Here, what we have is some transit agencies trying in two years, five years or 10 years . . . what other transit agencies have done in 20 years or 30," said Peter Benjamin, who retired from Washington's Metropolitan Area Transit Authority after ushering in smart-card technology.

SEPTA has installed at least one kiosk at all its subway stops. Most of its 1,400 buses have card readers, as do all but one of 159 trolleys. And 360 SEPTA fare collectors are being retrained to perform customer service.

The rollout's latest complication is a pilot program taking longer than expected, said Kevin O'Brien, SEPTA's senior program manager for the new system. It has had trouble accurately reporting revenue, categorizing transactions properly, and sending money to the proper accounts. Fixes should be ready in January, he said.

In 2011, when SEPTA signed a 129.5 million contract with ACS Transport Solutions of Columbia, Md., a subsidiary of Xerox Corp., the goal was for SEPTA Key to be operational on city transit by 2013, with Regional Rail to follow the next year. Launch dates in late 2014 and 2015 passed.

The contract with Xerox has had 10 change orders in the last four years. The most recent, approved this month, increased the price of the project by more than $4.7 million to pay for software and infrastructure changes.

Whether that will cause further delay was not specified in the latest change order, but it is possible, O'Brien said.

Change orders have increased the cost of the project by about $11 million. With stand-alone improvements to complement the new fare system, the project will cost close to $220 million, officials said - this, for a system that in many ways replicates programs now decades old in Washington, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.

SEPTA is so far behind other big cities because for years it lacked cash, general manager Jeff Knueppel said. Now that it can afford a modern fare system, it is finding that "the industry is just not very strong. There's no one knocking it out of the park on these types of projects."

The delays are a point of contention between SEPTA and Xerox, SEPTA officials said. The two parties are negotiating, but there is a chance disagreements could lead to legal action, O'Brien said.

Xerox did not discuss the possibility of a dispute. In an email, spokesman Carl Langsenkamp wrote: "While this project has been a complicated endeavor, we believe the anticipated public launch near the end of the first quarter of 2016 will make it easier and more efficient for all travelers in the region."

Other experts agree that the industry needs to mature. Relatively few vendors do the work. Lack of standardization is another problem, said Walter Allen, president of California-based Acumen, which builds systems similar to SEPTA Key. Software and hardware come from multiple sources, with no standards to guarantee everything will interact.

Benjamin said the card system SEPTA is struggling to get online may quickly become obsolete, noting that the scanners' ability to read credit cards with smart chips is critical. Credit and debit cards with smart technology are spreading fast and would make transit-specific cards redundant.

SEPTA Key itself may prompt that change. A big network of smart-card readers could create a larger market in the city for smart credit cards.

The system, O'Brien promised, "is going to be really revolutionary."