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$1-billion CharlieCard replacement system makes like the Green Line Extension and gets delayed again


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"That's a surprise", said nobody in Massachusetts.

Voting closed 38

SHOCKED this would happen in our great Commonwealth!!!
(Insert hysterical and maniacal laughter here)

Voting closed 7

$1 billion for the system, but it will also require the hiring of 100's of people to walk trains and confirm payment... insane!

Voting closed 49

A few questions for the MA GOV?

At what point does the never-ending cost of this boondoggle outweigh any potential benefit of the new system? For example, could we have employed a person to stand on each bus or subway and manually count pennies for less than 1 billion dollars?

Has anyone reviewed the process to selecting the vendor to see if there was any possible red flags or issues with the bid that might have suggested this waste? Is it graft, bribery, incompetence, wishful thinking, lowest bidder?

Do we have a prayer that this will ever get off the ground?

Are there any adults in the room to take the reigns and hold someone accountable for this mess?

We are not developing quantum computing, this is a transit ticketing system. Europe and the rest of the world seems to have figured this out. What is the problem?

Voting closed 80

A lot of the cost of this system is searching out and attempting to solve two "problems", namely:

1. The T does not like dealing with cash
2. Fare evasion

Now to be fair, both of these problems exist. Cash is a pain to deal with, and not everyone riding the T pays their fare. But the T's solution to these non-technical problems was technology, and this is like eating soup with a fork. Neither of these solutions really has a technological solution: some people will still want to use cash and accepting it will require a lot of infrastructure, and while 90% of people will pay their fare without asking questions (often their employer already pays it), the 10% who don't will become increasingly difficult to collect a fare from to the point where it will cost an infinite amount of money to collect the final fare (or close to it).

Much of the cash issue can be dealt with with fare machines. As recently as 2005, every T station needed an attendant changing bills for tokens. Now, every station has a fare machine and sometimes an attendant to help with the machine. Extending fare machines to the Commuter Rail wouldn't cost too much (there are only 130 Commuter Rail stations or so, and most are not so busy as to require more than one or two machines; in Europe, nearly every little transit station has a fare machine). Pre-pandemic, the average rapid transit station handled about 5000 people per day, the average Commuter Rail station about north 700 and the average bus stop 37 (the median is likely lower since so many bus trips start at a few major transfer stations like Nubian, Sullivan, Ruggles, Harvard, Sullivan, etc). Given fares, the average Rapid Transit station takes in about $2.5 million per year, the average Commuter Rail station $1.6 million, and the average bus stop just $13,000.

(I'm not making this up, this all comes from the 2019 fare equity analysis the T ran, translated to a Google Doc here.)

Once you have collected fares on Commuter Rail and rapid transit, it accounts for 90% of fares, and local bus (as opposed to Silver Line and express buses) accounts for just 5% of fares. That's where the cash comes into play: for just 5% of the fare revenue the T is collecting. So the T is spending all of this time and money to create a cashless system when well north 90% of fares are necessarily already cash-free. It's a billion dollars to attempt to collect $30 million in annual fares.

As far as bidding goes, because these systems have to be Buy America-compliant, there are often few bidders, and the bidders know this, so the T isn't going to get a good price. And despite some good people working on this internally, the bureaucracy there has created a situation where they have to solve for these problems.

As far as fare evasion, there are sort of two not-so-good ways to collect fares when you don't have turnstiles. Option 1 is to ask someone to pay every fare, in this case the bus driver. Pros: most fares get collected (but certainly not all) and cash can easily be accepted; in most cities they have a pretty simple app which lets people buy tickets (but not here). Cons: it requires a lot of equipment, cash payments are slow, cash needs to be handed, and making everyone validate payment, even when most have a monthly pass or transfer, can take a lot of time, make the trip slower, and cost more in operations.

Option 2 is to give people the opportunity to pay and then have a proof-of-payment system. Without going down too much of a decision tree, this can be some combination of scattered payment machines, payment apps or even machines onboard vehicles as well as validating at all doors (speeds boarding and operation) with some level of enforcement. The problem is that there really is no optimal enforcement mechanism. Having police or agents of some sort hand out high fines can probably recoup the costs of the police, since you don't need many staff, but these fines can be quite regressive, cause confrontation, and often lead to significant inequities (i.e., arresting people for not paying a fare, but we don't arrest people who run over their parking meter or go 33 in a 25). Some cities have gone to a kinder, gentler approach, like Seattle, but then it's not much of a deterrent from fare evasion and if you actually want to collect the fares you'll never get enough from enforcement to make up for the fares you don't collect. It's more performative, "look everyone pay their fare," but now you're paying lots of people to go around saying, essentially, "please pay your fare" and if people don't giving them a Charlie Card and asking them to please do better next time.

There is a very interesting corollary which is the "all electronic tolling" on the Turnpike. Same issues: cash collection was labor-intensive and slowed down traffic, but getting rid of toll collectors would require allowing some scofflaws to get away without paying a toll. The state looked at the numbers and said "even if n% of people don't pay a toll, and even if we can only chase down some of them, we'll save so much money elsewhere it's okay to let them slide through." (Or at least, there's a report from New Hampshire which says this, and theoretically Maine knows this too.) But you have to get over the optics of "yes some people may cheat and get away with it." And in Maine, because they were worried about that, they are spending tens of millions of dollars on new toll booths which won't actually dissuade toll evasion but which will make it look that way.

For transit, that's a lot of what's going on here. 90% of people have a valid Charlie Card and pay their fare, or have a pass or a transfer. So we're doing this performative thing of requiring everyone to stand in line and tap in order to make it look like everyone is paying their fare. Meanwhile, for drivers, we've eliminated the toll booths to give them a faster trip and are okay with some "leakage" if there is an overall benefit. On the Pike, most of that leakage is from out-of-state drivers where we don't have an EZPass reciprocity (far outside the Northeast, mostly), while on transit, if we didn't collect bus fares, the people who wouldn't pay would be more likely to be local residents who are poor and less likely to be white. Equity at work right here!

So my solution would be to do a soft elimination of bus fares. Since most bus trips go through a major transfer point, have fare-paid areas at these transfers (most people are on their way to pay into the subway, anyway). To appease certain State Senators who may or may not have internet platforms and be Very Concerned about things like homeless people riding the bus all day when it's cold, you could even require fare payment at route termini (where, since the bus is waiting to depart, it is less likely to delay service, although this is a pretty kludgy and inequitable solution to homelessness and certainly doesn't address the root causes!), and basically rebrand bus fare payment as "pay on exit at transfer" so, yeah, you're required to pay, but if you don't have cash you can get to the transfer point, which has a cash machine, and then go and load up your card on the honor system.

Sure, some people won't do this! You might lose $5 million per year in people who will skip fares. Maybe $10 million! But if the buses run faster, and you don't have to deal with figuring out how to collect fares and enforce payment on 1000 buses serving 10,000 bus stops, maybe that's a good tradeoff? Like being the first state to get rid of toll booths to make the roads work better and make it safer for drivers.

[/rant … I wonder if Adam has a character limit to deal with crazy people like me]

Voting closed 104

And going fare-free on Busses solves a bunch of problems. It's a smart solution and one the state will never consider, sadly.

Voting closed 23

"Well let me tell you a story about a man named Charlie...."

Voting closed 9

...who deserves to be trapped on the Green Line forever, it's Charlie Baker. And may he never return.

Voting closed 9

There are better places for Charlie.

I wonder how long his NCAA gig will last, before they have to buy him out.

Voting closed 2

Ari O said

[I wonder if Adam has a character limit to deal with crazy people like me]

There are plenty of characters on UHub.

Voting closed 34

For going over the time on the meter or for doing 33 in a 25... if the fines aren't paid. Well, after the state cancels your registration and you drive the unregistered car, or the state revokes your license and you drive without a license.

But the point of high fines for fare evasion, as you well know, is as a deterrent. If the fine is $20 but you're only likely to get caught 5% of the time, then it's cheaper to just pay the fines than $1.70 for bus fare on each ride. That's assuming they can even come after you for the fine since it's not like there's a requirement to present an ID when riding the T.

Voting closed 5

Longest answer ever. I wonder what it said?

Voting closed 5

Came to the comments to read the usual righteous fury and total insanity, instead found a well-written and thought-provoking take on the entire situation. I learned from UHub's comments? Yesterday this would have been unthinkable... What next, [insert your favorite UHub character here] actually considering someone else's opinion before exploding?

But really - thanks for taking the time to write this.

Voting closed 8

The very same company implemented the system in NYC. In my (admittedly limited) experience, it works like a dream: you can tap a Metro card, a credit card, use apple pay or android pay— all without having to set up any kind of account in advance.
But for the much smaller T it’s somehow going to cost more and take longer?

Voting closed 7

Will derail in Chelmsford/Billerica like the Orange line

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Voting closed 4

These people are idiots. Those damned fare gates at North Station ought to be ripped out; they're only inconveniencing and pissing off the people the T is supposed to serve.

Damn Charlie Baker. Damn his management team and his oversight committee. On day one, I said that if you want to solve a problem, you hire someone, put him or her in charge, and give him or her the resources he or she needs to solve the problem.

If you don't want to solve the problem, but want to make it look like you do, you hire a committee. Damn you Charlie Baker. Damn you forever.

Voting closed 25

Because people just fare evade there anyways?

Voting closed 2