T eager to shift to cashless fares

Riders would pay with phones, credit cards, and new Charlie Cards

THE MBTA IS MOVING AGGRESSIVELY to install a largely cashless fare system that would allow riders to pay with their phones, credit cards, or newly designed Charlie cards and allow the T to customize fares, speed the boarding of passengers, and dispense with aging, expensive fare boxes on trolleys and buses.

The T’s chief technology officer, David Block-Schachter, told the agency’s oversight board on Monday that he hopes to issue a request for proposals for the project this spring and launch the system two years after the contract is awarded. He called the timetable aggressive, a point that was echoed by the five members of the T’s Fiscal Control and Management Board. Indeed, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the initiative has already moved faster to this point than any other T project in history.

But the board members were openly salivating for the system because of its potential to benefit both riders and the MBTA. Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, called the new fare system one of the T’s top priorities. “How do we make this go faster?” he asked.

Neither Block-Schachter nor other T officials were willing to put a price tag on what such a system would cost. Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator, said it’s possible the system could be purchased under a revenue-share model where the vendor keeps a portion of the proceeds as compensation.

For riders, a cashless fare system could offer convenience. The current fare system is tied to plastic Charlie Cards and paper tickets.  The plastic cards are available through employers or picked up at a handful of locations on the T system. The tickets are available at T vending machines. The cards or passes can be loaded with money, but if cards are lost the money stored on them is also lost.

By contrast, the proposed fare system would be account-based, much like the E-Z Pass system for paying tolls. Users under the new system could pay to board a train using their smart phone, a contactless credit card, or other means. They could add money to their account automatically if the amount dips below a certain level and they could add money virtually anywhere.

MBTA officials said dispensing with cash payments on board trolleys and buses would speed up boarding considerably and save the T the cost of running the existing fare box system through a mid-life overhaul. Block-Schachter said the existing fare box system should be retired, not overhauled. He said the existing fare boxes on board Green Line trolleys and buses cost the same as an automobile, while the new fare system would be made from off-the-shelf components and cost the equivalent of a bicycle.

Monica Tibbitts-Nutt, a member of the Fiscal Control and Management Board, said after the meeting that the cost of the existing fare boxes ranges between $40,000 and $50,000.

Block-Schachter said the lower cost of the new fare readers would allow the T to install them at every door on a Green Line trolley, speeding up service. He said the fare readers would also track where customers enter and leave the T system, and allow the authority to assess fares using different criteria – length-of-ride or time-of-day, for example.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Even though the T oversight board was eager for the system to be installed, members acknowledged major challenges ahead. Block-Schachter said the retail sales network for Charlie Cards would have be expanded dramatically and vending machines would have to be installed at more remote locations, where cash could be used to buy the cards. Some board members said they doubted cash could be dispensed with entirely, particularly on buses.

Transit systems in London and Chicago have installed largely cashless fare systems and encountered glitches along the way. Block-Schachter said his philosophy as chief technology officer  is to learn from what others have done previously.  “Our goal is not to be first, but to be second or third,” he said.