SEPTA's new electronic "smart card" fare-collection system will be delayed after the agency this week gave companies more time to offer proposals for designing and building the system.

The deadline, which had been Tuesday, has been extended to May, SEPTA revenue and ridership chief John McGee said yesterday. That means a contract is not likely to be awarded until at least September, he said.

The "smart card" system will replace the tokens, tickets, and magnetic-stripe cards that passengers now use on buses, subways, trains, and trolleys. Passengers will be able to wave a card at a sensor on a turnstile or fare box and be on their way.

SEPTA wants a system that will allow passengers to use credit cards, prepaid SEPTA cards, and even cell phones to pay for their trips.

Would-be bidders have deluged SEPTA officials with more than 450 questions about what it wants for the system, making it difficult to meet the March deadline, McGee said. He said troubled money markets had also hampered the ability of vendors to get financing.

And SEPTA has decided to save money and time by doing some of the up-front work itself, McGee said.

SEPTA will spend about $2.5 million to install necessary electrical and communication equipment on station platforms in preparation for turnstiles that can read smart cards.

It will be several years before a new system can be built and installed. Unofficial cost estimates have ranged as high as $100 million, although SEPTA urged bidders to offer innovative financing proposals, such as public-private partnerships, to reduce the cost to the agency.

The biggest challenge may be designing a system that works well on Regional Rail, as rail passengers do not enter through a single gate or door.

SEPTA told bidders they must come up with a system that addresses rail-fare collection "in a customer-friendly manner."

Another challenge will be to create a smart card compatible with those used by other transit agencies. PATCO, which operates commuter trains between Philadelphia and South Jersey, last year installed a smart-card system, and NJ Transit is in the early stages of designing one.

Mayor Nutter's transportation chief, Rina Cutler, has said compatibility should be a priority for SEPTA's fare system so passengers can use a single card for travel, and perhaps even parking, throughout the region.

McGee said at least five companies or teams of companies remain in the hunt, but he did not identify them. Prospective bidders returned to Philadelphia last week for another look at the region's transit system, with a special interest in the Regional Rail network and the subway-surface trolleys.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.