SORTA weighs its options

SORTA weighs its options

After installing new fare boxes, Cincinnati Metro prepares to deploy the go*SMART card

Darryl Haley

Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which operates the Metro system in Cincinnati, OH, elected to install new fare technology in conjunction with a new CAD-AVL system to reduce bus operator interaction with the system, improve data collection, and, ultimately, reduce cash handling.

SORTA Executive Director of Development Darryl Haley spoke with BUSRide on why the agency is moving to a higher level of automation in fare collection.

What benefits do you expect to see from updating your fare system?

Metro installed new fare boxes at the end of 2011 and we have spent this year integrating the fare and CAD-AVL systems. Our goals are to get more accurate ridership and revenue data and to provide more options to our customers. There are other advantages, as well. The integration with our new CAD-AVL system means that bus operators have to log on to the system once. We are currently testing an interface that will automatically switch to new fare sets as the bus travels along the route. The new fare technology will also allow us to introduce new fare media. Our customers have started using 30-day passes validated by the farebox earlier this year and electronic transfers, and other fare media including stored value cards, and smart cards are on the near-term horizon for us.

What do you prefer about proprietary cards versus the open fare option?

We’re not considering open fare in terms of credit card use on bus. It can slow boarding time and could cause challenges in terms of credit card settlement and longer boarding times that we are not prepared to handle at this point.

What challenges and costs did you face as you updated your fare system?

Metro was fortunate to secure $5 million in federal and local funding to replace a fare system that was 17 years old. There were additional costs related to integrating the fare technology with our new CAD-AVL system, but we believe that the benefits will far outweigh the cost in the long run in terms of fare collection accuracy due to our various fare zones.

Do you think the cost would be prohibitive for other agencies?

A single farebox can cost more than $10,000, and that’s before the cost of the back-office systems. This was a major investment to upgrade our entire 345 bus fleet and purchase spares. I can’t speak to other agencies’ budgets, but for us this was a major investment.

What kind of model will you use for your go*SMART card? Who processes the transactions?

We are using smart cards for some selected employers and school programs this year. Our go*SMART cards will be introduced to the general public next year, and we’re looking at a number of options. The processing and related issues are still being worked out, as well as distribution beyond our sales office and a ticket vending machine at our major transit center downtown.

Do you have any plans to expand the use of your card to other transit agencies, or even to affiliated merchants for small purchases?

Metro works cooperatively with the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), which has the same fare technology as Metro, and with other smaller transit systems. We are working with TANK on fare options for the future using smart cards. We’re open to new opportunities that this technology can offer.

Will you continue to accept cash as fare for the foreseeable future, even as more and more high-tech options become available?

Yes. There are customers who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards and may not feel comfortable with pre-loaded fare media. We do plan to move away from tokens toward prepaid value cards in the next few months.

What were the advantages of tokens over cash?

Cincinnati has historically used transit tokens; in fact, many of the tokens we use today were minted 50 years ago. A token has a preset value, which is an advantage to agencies who distribute them to clients instead of giving them cash for transportation. But tokens are an administrative challenge in terms of storage, counting and auditing. We’re eager to move to stored value cards as soon as our technology interface is 100 percent ready to go. BR