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Transportation Fri Feb 14 2014

How D.C. Public Transit Will Go Open Fare and Keep Their Version of the Chicago Card

ventra_tap.jpgWhen the Chicago Transit Authority began the Ventra card roll out last August, the agency gave riders using the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus until Oct. 7 to transfer their accounts to the new system. However, widespread registration problems and card reader glitches forced the CTA to postpone this deadline for "several weeks" -- initially to Dec. 15, before getting pushed back again "indefinitely."

Last week, the agency announced that Ventra finally met the performance benchmarks necessary for its private vendor, Cubic Transportation Systems, to receive payments on their $454 million contract. The CTA is now claiming that they will fully transition to Ventra -- and away from Chicago Cards -- in (at least) a month.

At this point, it's worth asking why riders need to switch to Ventra to begin with. Halfway across the country, D.C.-area transit riders will soon get a Ventra-style open fare payment system...but will still be using a card based on a version of the Chicago Card technology.

One CTA talking point claims that the only manufacturer capable of producing the Chicago Card stopped doing so years ago, making a new solution necessary. Additionally, the official Ventra FAQ states, "The existing CTA and Pace fare payment system is nearly 20 years old," and that the current system "is very costly to repair and maintain, and it does not provide any long-term benefits."

But Chicago wasn't the only city that used the Chicago Card technology, or even the first.

Back in 1995, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) began trial runs for a transit fare payment smart card called the GoCard. Developed by Cubic, it was meant to replace the disposable fare card payment system used on the WMATA's buses, rail lines and parking lots.

Four years later, Cubic and the WMATA launched the SmarTrip card, based on the same proprietary technology. After a gradual roll out, it was adopted en masse in 2003, and became first contactless transit fare payment card in the United States. Around this time, the CTA and Cubic adopted this same technology for the Chicago Card.

metro smartripTowards the end of the decade, however, the transit systems went in different directions.

During a live, Ventra-themed episode of "Chicago Tonight" two months ago (in which I participated), CTA President Forrest Claypool gave some background to the Ventra procurement process, calling it a "once-in-a-generation movement to a new fare payment system that began in 2007."

He explained that the CTA first issued a request for bids in 2009. After Claypool became head of the agency in Jan. 2011, his team picked Cubic for making the lowest bid, having the leading international track-record in fare payment, and already being the incumbent vendor for the CTA's fare payment needs.

By Nov. 2011, City Council the Chicago Transit Board approved a $454 million contract to Cubic to create the Ventra system.

The WMATA, meanwhile, had more flexibility. In the mid-2000s, the agency needed to integrate the payment systems of nearby state and county transit lines, but wanted to secure their previous investment in the SmartTrip technology. As a solution, WMATA commissioned Cubic to develop the Tri-Reader system capable of reading Cubic's chipset, along with two other digital standards used in smart card fare payment systems across the world. The Tri-Reader was first installed on 1,500 buses in 2004, and by Dec. 2010, the WMATA opted to simply replace the Cubic GoCard chip in the SmartTrip card with one of these RFID standards, the ISO-14443.

According to the WMATA Board proposal [PDF], "Staff recommends taking action to update readers in the Metrorail and Metrobus and regional Fare Collection Systems to accept a new contactless chip and card based on technical standards set by the International Standards Organization (ISO); more specifically, standard ISO-14443."

After fretting over the loss of the previous chipsets, the WMATA Board wanted to "ensure the readers are backward compatible to continue to read the GoCard / SmarTrip® chips in the cards now used by nearly 2 million customers and forward compatible to read the new ISO chips." Most importantly, "At implementation, the chip change will be transparent to Metro's customers."

By 2012, the WMATA announced they found a new vendor that could manufacture cheaper SmarTrip cards.

However, the agency didn't plan on solely relying on the modified cards. Like the CTA, the WMATA solicited bids in 2009 for an open fare payment system [PDF]. But unlike the CTA, the request stipulated that "All types of pass products available on current system must be accommodated by the Open Payment System."

The winning bid went to Accenture, who will build the system for $184 million and begin testing later this year in select locations.

According to Progressive Railroading, "The $184 million contract was awarded on a best value basis, following a competitive procurement process that included an examination of the technical capabilities of the shortlisted companies and their proposals, historical performance and value, WMATA officials said in a press release."

Ironically, the multi-billion dollar technology and consulting firm is based in Chicago.

To review, the CTA replaced the Cubic-built Chicago Card with the Cubic-built Ventra card/open fare payment system, whereas the WMATA replaced the Cubic parts of the Cubic-built SmartTrip card, and awarded a cheaper contract for an open fare payment system to a rival bidder.

In the CTA's defense, a $454 million open fare investment that included a new card usable on Pace and Metra makes more sense for meeting the state's legal mandate to unify the three transit systems, than paying to issue new cards and upgrading readers to a preexisting chip standard.

Still, by switching chips, the WMATA has more control over its smart card than the CTA. The Ventra card is owned by Cubic and produced solely on their terms. Furthermore, the company will get paid between 1 and 4.4 cents per use of the Ventra card, in addition to what they will be paid to operate and maintain the entire system.

Meanwhile, Accenture's winning WMATA bid proves that an open fare payment system can simply be what it claims to be -- open to multiple payment solutions, including ones that a transit agency has leverage over. As a recent Accenture report on fare collection investment recommends, "For transit agencies looking to cut fare collection costs, multi-vendor integration is important."

Though their respective transit systems have major differences, D.C. offers a glimpse of what could have been for Chicago.

Regardless of the long-term merits of what Claypool called a "first of its kind technological system," Ventra wasn't the only possible approach to an open fare system. Quite frankly, there's no reason why a purportedly "open" system shouldn't be able to read Ventra, Chicago Cards, or smart cards with a non-Cubic chipset alike.

As Chicago Card users wait for the CTA to decide when they'll be forced to switch to Ventra, they should ask why it's even necessary.

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John Wawrzaszek / February 14, 2014 12:15 PM

After reading this, I wasn't aware of the chip technology available, but I do recall people mentioning when hitting their wallet getting a double charge from Ventra and Credit Cards. Made me want to post.
Thanks for writing this. Also, I'm a Chicago Card hold out. What.

Ray / February 14, 2014 12:21 PM

Another day, another Ventra failure: on the bus, this morning, my Chicago Card swiped fine and instantly, as usual (though I have to wipe it on my pants first, or it won't work at all, but only on the bus...don't need to to the pants-wipe at El turnstiles). The rider behind me tried and tried his Ventra card, and eventually boarded without paying.

robin in wrp / February 14, 2014 8:34 PM

We are still using our (4) Chicago plus cards because (despite numerous calls and emails) we never received our Ventra cards.

Jef / February 18, 2014 3:00 PM

BOO HOO! I have to step into the 21 century. BOO HOO! Stop crying any administrator who doesn't see the fiscal and managerial benefits of one system should be fired.

Joe / February 21, 2014 1:28 AM

I believe it was the Chicago Transit Board that approved the Cubic contract, not the City Council. Don't confuse your rubber stamps!

Flow switch / February 24, 2014 11:58 PM

Great post I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this interesting and knowledgeable article.

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