TODAY, as a judge continues pondering the fate of SEPTA's transfer fares, let us ponder the reason SEPTA wants to ditch transfers in the first place.
And then let us ponder the typically lame-brained way SEPTA is doing it.
SEPTA says that transfers - paper slips that cost 60 cents and allow riders to transfer from one route to another without paying a second full fare - are inefficient. They are easily lost and they force busy cashiers to handle more cash than SEPTA wants them to.
So SEPTA wants to get rid of the transfers in preparation for its move to smart cards - an electronic fare system that makes paper transfers obsolete.
But here's the thing: SEPTA has no idea when the conversion will happen.
"We don't have a specific time line," spokesman Jim Whitaker tells me. "We had to remove the conversion from this year's budget because of funding issues. But it's something we hope to look at again soon."
Knowing SEPTA, "soon" could take eons to get here.
Because there's real time.
And then there's SEPTA time.
To grasp the elasticity of SEPTA time, let's look at some capital projects the agency has bungled over the years, as documented in a depressing 2005 report by the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers.
There was the Schuylkill Valley Metro line to Reading. For years, highly paid consultants studied the project (costing SEPTA $4 million plus), which was to have finished construction this year.
The rail line never got built.
There was the $60 million Girard Avenue trolley route, which was to have begun service in June 2004 but stalled because SEPTA never straightened things out with the community where the line originates before proceeding with the project. Only political intervention - prompted by an expose in the Daily News - got the line moving a full year later.
And then there is the mother lode of boondoggles: reconstruction of the Market Street portion of the Market-Frankford Elevated Line. The project - admittedly complicated by the default of an outside contractor - is years behind schedule, a delay that has decimated the fragile Market Street business corridor.
Oh - and it's $290 million over its original budget.
No wonder SEPTA keeps postponing installation of a smart-card system, a steal at $49 million. It has enough trouble with the other stuff.
Meantime, other transit agencies have been able to convert to smart-card systems without first getting rid of transfers.
Take Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which went to smart cards in January.
The system speeds fare service and lets the agency track ridership more accurately, says MBTA spokesman Joe Pesatauro. MBTA can respond to riders' needs by adding railcars to heavily used routes or by offering discounts on less-used lines.
The smart cards also have helped MBTA reduce "leakage," which is rail-speak for the fares lost when riders figure out how to game the system.
"Paper transfers used to cause a lot of leakage," says Pesatauro. "Riders reused them and operators didn't notice, or check. We couldn't wait to get rid of them."
But get this: MBTA didn't get rid of its paper transfers until after smart cards were in place.
Why? Because the agency never opposed the transfer concept; it just opposed the clunky way it was executed.
MBTA still offers transfers, but the fee now is deducted electronically from the smart card, the way that, say, minutes are from a pre-paid phone card.
"It wouldn't have made sense to get rid of the paper transfers before the cards were in place," says Pesatauro. "They were inconvenient for us, but the riders needed them."
So MBTA made the change at the right time.
Not on SEPTA time. *