T changes course on fare system upgrade

New phased-in approach has costs and benefits

HAVING MISCALCULATED THE needs of its riders and the capabilities of its vendor, the MBTA has adopted a new approach to overhauling its fare collection system that will take longer to complete, cost more, but result in a better and more reliable product, officials say.

Rather than the all-at-once, make-or-break transition dubbed a “big bang” under the old schedule, the T will instead gradually phase-in a series of upgrades to ultimately achieve the goal of a smoother, more flexible fare-collection operation that eliminates on-board cash. The launch had been slated for next year with the implementation to be completed by 2022, but under the new plan, the phase-in will stretch into 2024.

The shift amounts to a mea culpa of sorts for a decision made under the Baker administration in 2017 –when Luis Ramirez was general manager and David Block-Schachter was the chief technology officer.

“We had structured a contract in such a way that I think made some assumptions about our partner and about our own capabilities, and about what the community wanted. And I think at the end of the day, all three of those assumptions were off,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak told reporters at an embargoed briefing on Friday. “And what we’ve done here is a course correction, where we have a realistic contract with a realistic schedule… our partner confirms they can meet, and we’ve also adapted to what we’ve heard from the community.”

The T is still moving ahead with Cubic, the incoming vendor, but also keeping on board Scheidt & Bachmann, the current vendor, to ease the transition and enable some early deliverables. The slower transition will make room for more rigorous testing of the new technology.

Starting next year, riders on the Fairmount line will be able to tap-in with a Charlie card rather than using the more cumbersome commuter rail payment system. In 2021, Charlie cards will be dispensed by fare vending machines, and the T will remove the surcharge on fares paid via cash or Charlie tickets – both of which will subsequently be phased out.

Eventually, the new Charlie card will be the only option, the card itself will have a cost that has not yet been determined. Riders will also be able to go into deficit on their Charlie card so that they can still use it even if it’s not loaded up with enough money for the fare.

By 2023, new fare-readers will enable rear-door boarding on buses and trolleys – which should speed up service – and by 2024 the new fare media will be valid throughout the commuter rail. Once the new fare system is complete in about five years, the T could try integrating its fare media with non-transit services such as ride-hailing, parking, bike rentals, and more, officials said.

The new timeline is about two years longer than the earlier “big bang” approach, and the T will need to pay an additional $159 million to build out the new Cubic system, and pay Scheidt & Bachmann an extra $43 million, plus $6 million in credit card processing fees, to upgrade the current system and keep it operational for longer. Those costs are on top of the $723 million cost of the 2017 contract with Cubic.

“Absolutely it’s going to cost more. Absolutely there’s going to be more benefit to the ridership. Absolutely this is going to be state-of-the-art, and it will take a little bit more time,” said Ronald Renaud, the T’s chief transformation officer.

Another benefit to the contract restructuring is the T will have more control over where new fare vending machines will be installed both on the streets – where they will be available to bus riders – and in stations and retail locations. Soon after this story was first published on Monday afternoon, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board approved changes to its contracts with Cubic and Scheidt & Bachmann.

All told, the T plans to go from 315 vending locations today to more than 1,400 in the future.

The new phased-in approach will also avoid the potential for catastrophe. The existing fare vending machines will not be able to process credit card payments in the near future, so if the T stuck with its “big bang” transition and Cubic failed to deliver, riders would lose their ability to use credit cards at T vending machines.

“It would have been chaos at the gates,” said Renaud. Instead, Scheidt & Bachmann will install new fare vending machines and upgrade the fare gates, under the new arrangement.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

The two vendors are both working together and have signed non-disclosure agreements enabling them to carefully share technology, Renaud said.

Laurel Paget-Seekins, the MBTA’s assistant general manager for policy, said the new approach will also allow for more community input about the placement of fare vending machines and other aspects of the project.