PA: Ambler Firm to Manage Installation of SEPTA Fare System

SEPTA on Thursday took a $9 million step toward its long-awaited, long-delayed electronic fare system, although questions remain about how rail passengers will use it.

A SEPTA board committee approved a $9 million contract with LTK Engineering Services of Ambler to manage installation of the system. The full board will vote on it Thursday.

SEPTA officials plan to award a contract in September for the fare system, which will allow passengers to pay with credit cards, debit cards, cell phones, or electronic SEPTA cards.

The new, $100 million fare system is likely to take several years to install.

For most passengers - those who ride buses, subways, and trolleys - the switch to the new system will be relatively easy. New electronic card readers will simply replace old turnstiles or fare boxes.

But on Regional Rail, which accounts for 13 percent of SEPTA's riders and 25 percent of its revenue, the system may bring major changes.

SEPTA is considering charging rail fares only in the outbound direction and installing subway-style gates and turnstiles at five Philadelphia stations: Suburban, Market East, 30th Street, University City, and Temple University.

Rail-passenger advocates have argued against those changes, saying they could encourage widespread fare evasion by riders who could train into Philadelphia free and find another way home.

Recently, others have weighed in against the one-way fares as well.

SEPTA's own Citizen Advisory Committee voted against one-way fares. And a "stakeholder group" that included planning representatives from Philadelphia and the four suburban Pennsylvania counties also agreed that a one-way fare structure should be abandoned.

Aissia Richardson, chair of the citizen committee, said the one-way fare system "is not a model that has been tried successfully elsewhere."

She said SEPTA should plan instead for a system where train passengers "tag in" when they board and "tag out" when they get off. That would be similar to the electronic system used by passengers on the PATCO commuter rail system that operates between Philadelphia and South Jersey.

Matt Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers advocated for ticket vending machines at all rail stations and for keeping the current system of monthly and weekly passes for rail commuters.

"We still don't know how they intend to verify fares from riders who don't go to or from Center City, plus their system opens up several new opportunities to cheat," Mitchell said. "They're so fixated on the turnstiles that make sure all the Center City riders pay that they're leaving the back door wide open. That's enough of a financial risk that it could eat up the revenue benefit of the [new payment technology] system."

John McGee, SEPTA's chief of new payment technologies, said Thursday that SEPTA had not decided how to collect fares from rail passengers. He said that the one-way fare remains a possibility, but that SEPTA was still meeting with county officials and others.

Three companies are in the running for the electronic fare contract: ACS Transport Solutions Group of Columbia, Md.; Scheidt & Bachmann of Germany; and Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. of San Diego.

SEPTA's purchasing process has fallen far behind the schedule announced in November 2008, when the agency said it hoped to award a contract by April 2009.

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

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