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Free rides for seniors coming on Regional Rail

When SEPTA's Key fare card comes to Regional Rail this fall, it will bring some good news for senior citizens: free rides.

SEPTA will eliminate the $1 fee seniors currently pay on Regional Rail's 13 lines for anyone with SEPTA's Senior ID Cards for those 65 and older. The change comes as SEPTA works to convert all of its riders to the Key system. Nearly 80,000 Key cards are in circulation, along with 50,000 Senior ID Cards.

Eventually SEPTA will eliminate all other fare tools in favor of the smart cards, officials have said. The process is already underway. While SEPTA will continue honoring other fare tools for the time being, it will stop selling magnetic strip card weekly and monthly passes and one-day convenience passes for city transit June 1. Riders will still be able to buy tokens and rail passes afterward.

Seniors can ride free on city buses, subways, and trolleys, and the free Regional Rail rides were designed to mirror that, said Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesman.

"We want to see seamless travel," Busch said.

SEPTA is installing card readers at Regional Rail stops. Riders will simply tap their card to get on a train.

The issue of free rides on Regional Rail for senior citizens came up Monday during hearings on SEPTA's proposed fare increases. Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, criticized the decision, saying it added to his concern that the long-delayed Key system can't manage the demands of all the modes of travel in the region. He noted that while Key has been in the works since 2011, the first time he heard of free rides for seniors was this year, when SEPTA announced its new fare structure.

"If that was what was the intent, they should have been able to tell us five years ago," Mitchell said.

Eliminating the $1 charge for seniors would cost SEPTA about $1 million a year, Busch said.

SEPTA knew for at least a year that the Senior ID Cards would not be designed to process a $1 fee, and decided it wasn't a necessary function.

"We didn't go down the road to try to develop that," Busch said. "That part of it wasn't really explored."

Seniors can get a new picture ID card at SEPTA's headquarters at 1234 Market St. or through a state representative or senator. Starting this summer, SEPTA will begin offering same-day processing for Senior ID Cards at its headquarters and Suburban Station.

SEPTA Key could have even more wide-ranging effects on fares, officials said. It will offer more precise analytics on rider habits than has before been possible, and when it is online throughout the system, SEPTA will begin using that data to adjust how it charges riders.

While a petition to eliminate transfer fees this year doesn't appear likely to succeed, SEPTA's deputy general manager, Rich Burnfield, didn't rule out an end to transfer fees in the future, and said data from the Key card would be useful in revisiting the issue, possibly as soon as 2019.