Capital Metro considering new technology for easier ways to buy, use transit passes

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The city of Austin’s transit agency is looking into updating its outdated fare collection system and equipment with new ways for customers to buy and use transit cards.

Capital Metro is considering new technology that could include re-loadable smart cards and options to buy mobile passes at retail locations. The agency would also like to add onboard fare validator boxes on every bus instead of just on its MetroRapid buses.

“If we can move the service faster then there are clearly operational efficiencies to bring out,” Randy Clarke, Capital Metro president and CEO, said. “We know there’s a lot of dwell time to get people on and off of our buses.”

Although some of these measures might still be a ways out, the agency has issued one request for proposals for new ticket vending machines and will issue a second one in November to obtain a fare systems consultant, said Reinet Marneweck, Capital Metro’s chief financial officer. The board is slated to take action on those requests for proposals in early 2019.

The new ticket vending machines would replace the ones at the MetroRail stations, which are not able to accept credit cards because of the new chip technology, and would be installed at busy bus stops, she said.

It costs Capital Metro about $3.1 million each fiscal year to collect fares, which total about $24 million in revenue, Marneweck said.

“Part of the reason [collection is]so low is our equipment is so outdated,” she said. “They are beyond life cycle and require significant downtime for maintenance and repair. We have to [update them].”

Capital Metro currently offers magnetic stripe cards that customers can purchase for daily, weekly and monthly passes. Re-loadable smart cards would replace these, although Capital Metro likely would slowly phase out the magnetic stripe cards, Marneweck said.

One goal Capital Metro has through these new fare collection initiatives is to minimize the use of cash payments, she said. Other pass options for customers who do not use credit cards would be offering passes at more retail locations and allowing for customers to purchase mobile passes at retail locations.

“Cash is very hard on the equipment and very costly to collect, process and bank,” she said. “We will still always offer cash [payments], but we want to offer our customers as many as possible other payment options as well.”

Reducing the use of cash would require an account-based back-end system, Marneweck said, with smart cards and onboard validator boxes that could also accept Apple Pay and Google Pay but also contactless credits cards that users just tap on the boxes and identification cards, such as from Austin ISD or Austin Community College.

“[Smart cards] would give us data on trips and travel patterns, such as how many transfers are the average riders making and all kinds of data we currently don’t have because of our systems,” Marneweck said.

Using smart cards would also allow Capital Metro to offer fare capping, which could reduce any social inequities with paying for fares, Clarke said.

“You may not be able to afford a monthly pass at the start of the month, and if you ride every day it actually costs you more than if you bought a monthly pass,” he said. “So fare capping could be done on a monthly way where if you reach day 16, you would have already paid for a monthly pass, and the rest of the month is free.”

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  1. Glad to see they’re doing SOMETHING. The current payment system is a joke. The first time I rode the rail I paid $10 cash to the machine and nothing happened. It just stole my money, and would NOT refund it. The only other machine was out of order.. If you don’t have cash (which the machine just eats) you have to use the horrible app that you have to spend 10 minutes setting up with your credit card before you can get a ticket. People seem to get on/get off with no ticket and the conductors never check tickets. I don’t mind paying $7 to get downtown, but I wonder if I’m the only one that actually paid… Seems like the majority of people just jump on and jump off whenever, wherever. Something that should be a good tax revenue stream is taken advantage of, and with the way the payment system operates, I can see why…

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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