There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Friday, February 21, 2014

Will "Smart Cards" Make People Want To Ride Sacramento Regional Transit?

So today I gave The Kid my car and used my senior pass to take my local bus down to Wendy's on Watt for lunch. Made me feel sort of transitarian again.

It was when I was waiting to get off the bus 10 minutes later, that I was surprised to see a Connect Card fare reader on the pole just inside the front door of the bus.

"Wow," I said to the driver. "When's this going to start?"

"You'll know before we do," the driver replied. "Probably another five more years."

I've written before about the coming of "smart cards" and my concern that all of the convenience of tapping your card to board the bus will mask major fare increases. What I had to say back in May 2008 deserves rereading -- Smart Cards and Dumb Fares -- and a response from RT.

After lunch at Wendy's I walked next door to Starbucks and fired up my laptop to do a little research.  Turns out the coming smart card, to be known as Connect Card, has its own website -- -- and a YouTube channel that was created three months ago.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments is the lead agency bringing this innovation to the region, with six (or seven if Placer joins) transit agencies in addition to RT signed up to participate. (Here's a slideshow outlining SACOG's efforts.)

According to SACOG's Overall Work Program Fiscal Year 2013-14 Amendment #1 -- December 12, 2013,  the 14-004-06 Connect Card Implementation line item total expenditure is budgeted at $10,876,751, of which $5,015,000 this year is for equipment and software. Most of the $10 million funding comes from the Federal Highway Administration's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program ($5,172,078) and Proposition 1B matching funds ($4,321,057).

The system pilot program is scheduled to start next month, with Phase 1 of the system roll out in May and system roll out of phases 2-5 in July. The final acceptance of the new fare system is scheduled for September.

Here's SACOG description of the project: "This project is the implementation planning, procurement, and deployment of a regional universal transit fare card system (Connect Card). A new electronic fare system is expected to simplify transit system operations, improve system connectivity, contribute to regional air quality goals, and increase the attractiveness of transit to new patrons."

Sometime between now and September a big media campaign is supposed to launch, but there's nothing at Sacramento Regional Transit's website.

In January, General Manager Mike Wiley, was asked during his monthly "Transit Talk with the General Manager": "Has RT thought about decreasing fares during commute times to encourage transit ridership? Or otherwise varying the fare depending on the route? For example, charging a little more on the routes that tend to be overcrowded, and charging a little less on those that struggle to retain riders?"

Wiley's response: "RT staff has a number of ideas regarding fare structure and pricing. However, in order to consider any changes we must first successfully implement the new Connect Card, our new electronic fare card. It is scheduled for implementation July 1, 2014. Once that is accomplished we will be able to consider numerous fare changes to both the structure and pricing."

So I ask the question again: Will adding Sacramento Regional Transit's dumb fares to the proposed "smart card" make the system stupid?

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