“It’s probably something we couldn’t have done a couple of years ago. The reason is we needed a very strong communication system to get this to work,” McGee says. “One of the issues Salt Lake City has is because where they sit in the basin, even today they don’t have excellent cell coverage and as a result real time is a problem. For us, we have excellent cell coverage so all transactions will be real time, so someone can walk into a 7/11 and decides to walk out with a gift card they purchased there, they’ll be able to immediately use that to pay for transit.”
With the changes to fare collection, McGee says it’s expected toimprove the impression people have of the transit system. Right now people meet gatekeepers at stations who are behind bulletproof glass and can’t easily communicate with the public, but with the new system, those gatekeeper roles will be changed as zone offices will be set up to monitor stations via video and provide customer support by phone.
McGee says 10 percent of SEPTA customers currently pay cash, but that number is expected to drop to five percent after the implementation of the new open fare payment system. The system will also offer a farecard to riders who don’t possess a contactless credit card or phone, which will act like a regular debit card, but no fees will be assessed if it’s only used for transit.
However, about 30 percent of the population is unbanked, so McGee says they have to go to checkcashers where they pay extraordinary fees and the use of the SEPTA card for general purpose use will provide a better option.
“When shopping, we’ll be offering them an alternative debit card that’s probably the lowest cost around and that’s an advantage for everyone,” he says.
While other agencies are in the process of implementing open payment systems, SEPTA didn’t have the funds to do it themselves, so Casey says it’s being paid for with a low-interest loan, which will have to be repaid within five years. Casey says it’s expected to produce economies, such as the elimination of paper transfers, less staffing needs and third-party administration of the system, to help pay for itself.
The system will also have riders tap out, allowing the agency to set up zone fares and charge more for longer trips.
“Will we turn 100 percent in five years? I don’t think so, but we’ll have a major portion of it through those economies,” he says.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has made a commitment tosustainability because he wants the region to be the cleanest and greenest in North America. Transit inherently has a positive environmental impact, so Casey says the call for sustainability was a natural fit so it was elevated in SEPTA’s business plan.
“Sustainability for SEPTA is really about business sense,” says Erik Johanson, strategy and sustainability planner for SEPTA. It’s about making our business more sustainable by improving our operating performance and it also improves our environmental sustainability.”
Part of the sustainability commitment was the purchase of 500 hybrid buses, replacing one-third of SEPTA’s bus fleet. Johanson says the buses were purchased with the environment in mind, but they also save 40 percent in fuel costs compared to diesel buses, which saves the agency tens of thousands of dollars each year. The buses will pay back within eight to 10 years, reduce maintenance costs and they were purchased with a federal grant so no additional SEPTA investment was required.
SEPTA’s Fox Chase rail station was the first in the country to become a LEED silver certified station. And in 2012, the agency became the first on the east coast to be given a gold recognition for sustainability by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
The agency’s headquarters has even earned an Energy Star because it harvests all storm water and energy despite running on a shoestring budget because simple changes like moving the cleaning crews to the daytime shift reduced energy consumption.
The agency is also partnering with a free library to offer digital libraries at train stations where riders can scan books and podcasts into their phones. And to combat the food desert issue, Casey says SEPTA has partnered with a local food trust to allow them to reach out to riders at stations.