At Laaaaaaaaast ... RTA Smart Cards are Coming Along

click to enlarge Clevelanders for Public Transit rally (7/23/2018). - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Clevelanders for Public Transit rally (7/23/2018).

The grassroots transportation advocacy organization Clevelanders for Public Transit and members of the RTA board of trustees have called on RTA to terminate its contract with a company that was supposed to have provided "smart card services" in Cleveland.

Conduent, a Xerox spinoff that offers digital platforms for businesses and government agencies, has installed fare boxes and other ticketing machines as part of its contract with RTA, first signed in 2007. But it has failed to introduce smart cards, the reloadable credit-card-style fare cards that other transit systems have been using for years.

That will soon change. Conduent and RTA say that the company is prepared to fulfill its contractual obligations, and that RTA riders will be able to use smartcards by next summer.

Board members Justin Bibb and Valarie McCall nevertheless questioned the Conduent contract at a committee meeting earlier this month. And CPT has noted that Conduent's smartcard system is already obsolete. If RTA doesn't opt for newer-generation fare collection technology, the organization said in a press release, it will fall even further behind peer transit systems, especially in its commitment to fare equity.

“For years, peer cities like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh have had smartcards,” CPT's Chris Stocking said, in a statement provided to the media. “Now smart card systems in places like Indianapolis and Columbus are implementing fare-capping. It is time for RTA to join the 21st century, or ridership will continue to decline.”

A fare collection study based on rider surveys, presented to members of RTA's board of trustees earlier this month, was consistent with recommendations that CPT provided in its "Fair Fares" report last year.

RTA's study found, among other things, that low-income and minority riders tend to overpay for their trips because the majority of them purchase single-trip fares instead of five-trip fare cards, all-day passes or monthly passes, which provide better discounts for frequent travelers but have a higher upfront cost.

The key solution to this problem is a policy known as fare-capping, which was first introduced in Portland and is now being rolled out in other markets with newer smartcard systems that can tabulate rides and purchase histories. The gist of the policy is that riders' fares are capped so they always get maximum value on their purchases.

In Cleveland, an all-day pass is currently $5.50 (though RTA's study recommended reducing the cost to $5.00), and a single ride is $2.50. With a fare-capping system, riders would be charged $2.50 for their first ride and $2.50 for their second ride. But if they took a third ride, they wouldn't be charged the full $2.50, as is currently the case. They'd be charged $0.50, meaning their total cost for the day would be the equivalent of an all-day pass. They would pay no additional fares for rides that day. Fares would be likewise capped for monthly passes.

According to CPT, fare-capping is the "best solution to restore equity" to RTA's fares, and should be "one element of a broader vision to win back riders, reverse the death spiral and restore public support for RTA."

But for fare-capping to be implemented, newer generation smart cards will first have to be introduced, and that's still a ways off, according to RTA's Joel Freilich.

Freilich told Scene that RTA is planning to continue its contract with Conduent so that riders can have smart cards within a year, a process that he says will speed up boarding times. These cards wouldn't have built-in fare-capping, but they'd provide roughly equivalent functionality as RTA's mobile app, and could be used by all riders. That's a critical improvement, Freilich said, for riders without credit cards or smartphones, or those with limited data plans.

Freilich confirmed the rough estimate he provided to, that the newer generation fare-capping smart cards could be expected in "about five years." But he said that terminating the Conduent contract wouldn't hasten that timeframe, which he characterized as a complicated, if familiar, bureaucratic process involving requests for proposals, vendor selection, contract negotiations and product testing and delivery. 

"We are not postponing our long-term plans just because this [Conduent] smart card is coming," he said. "We're not giving up short-term success to succeed in the long-term."

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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