Delays reported on the SEPTA Key: “Sometime in 2015” for most lines, March 2016 for regional rail

PlanPhilly will regularly report on the progress SEPTA is making in developing and implementing its new payment technology. Stay tuned.

It seems as though SEPTA officials have learned to stop giving estimates for the launch of SEPTA Key, given how often it’s been pushed back. “Sometime in 2015” for the system’s initial launch was as precise a prediction anyone was willing to give when the team overseeing the implementation of the new payment system recently sat down with PlanPhilly. 

Despite some optimistic estimates by local media excited by seeing some new fare kiosks and turnstiles installed for employee pilot testing, the public shouldn’t expect to use SEPTA Key anytime soon. “Testing will be going on for the next couple of months,” says Kevin O’Brien, Senior Program Manager for SEPTA Key.

Once the testing is successfully complete, SEPTA will resume installing new equipment, and once at least 50 percent is ready, the system will finally launch publically.

But, O’Brien cautioned, if testing isn’t successful, implementation “will take longer.”

As bad as that may sound to bus and subway patrons, it’ll be worse for regional rail riders, who will probably need to wait until the spring of 2016: Next week, SEPTA’s Board will most likely agree with its Administrative Committee’s recommendation to extend the LTK Engineering Services contract for consulting work on regional rail’s SEPTA Key “through its launch on [regional rail] projected in March 2016.”

By O’Brien’s count, the project is currently 16 months behind schedule – originally, the hope was to launch on subway, bus and trolley lines in September 2013 and regional rail a few months after.

No single factor is solely responsible for the continuous delays, but – not unlike the Flyers tantalizingly close, yet ultimately failed attempt to win the Stanley Cup in 2010 – a lot of the blame can be heaped on Chicago.

Chicago’s CTA rushed the rollout of its Ventra card, awarding a $454 million contract in November 2011 and trying to launch it 2013. The results? Let’s just say that not even the love child of Mike Ditka and Bill Brasky leading the Cubs to the World Series could have appeased the anger wrought by that debacle. “We are not going to roll [SEPTA Key] out until the customers have a product that we expect will preform the way it is designed to perform,” says Leslie Hickman, Deputy Chief Officer of SEPTA Key Integration.

Even if SEPTA weren’t on edge about not repeating Chicago’s blunder – ¡El Problema! – the scope of implementing a brand new system makes the delays more understandable, if not less frustrating. “Remember, this is all new technology, all new equipment they are designing, manufacturing, testing – it’s not just pull off the shelf and give it to you,” says O’Brien.  

SEPTA Key will be account based, where the information is stored on a system rather than on an individual card, which is how nearly every public transportation fare card system works in America. In fact, only one other public transportation system using an account-based system is – you guessed it – Chicago.

Also, having the official in charge of implementing SEPTA Key retire last April couldn’t have helped.

The project isn’t small, either. It involves five different transit modes, 1,400 buses, 393 subway turnstiles and dozens of regional rail stations. In total, SEPTA will be installing close to 8,200 new pieces of equipment to implement the system, making this over four times larger than the last time the authority updated its fare boxes, back in 1991. That project involved 1,772 fare boxes and only finished at the end of 1994.

To be fair, SEPTA isn’t guilty of being slow in implementing the new system so much as being overly optimistic with its prior estimates. Even if it doesn’t wrap up until next March, SEPTA Key will have taken a little over four years from contract award to implementation. Boston’s CharlieCard took about five years. PATCO awarded its Freedom Card contract in March 2005, originally for $11.3 million and to be installed by the end of 2006. The projected ended upfinishing in the spring of 2008 and costing $13 million, or about $1 million per PATCO station.

Judging from contracts extensions, the delays are costing SEPTA time, but not much money. ACS Transport Solution Group was awarded a $129.5 million contract to design, build and install the new payment system. Back in September, that contract was extended to $130.3 million. The LTK Engineering contract has gone up from an original price of $9.2 million to a total of $12.1 million. While $3.7 million isn’t a rounding error, it’s not clear yet whether SEPTA or the contractors will ultimately foot the bill for these additional costs.


Adding to the technological complexity – and thus the delays – SEPTA Key will be an “open fare” system, allowing nearly any other card or phone equipped with Near Field Communication (NFC) chips to be used for payment, in addition to Key cards made available by SEPTA.

The latest Androids, iPhone 6s and iPad Air 2s have NFC chips, but if you’re a relative pauper with an iPhone 5 or some kind of luddite still using a BlackBerry (what is this, 2009?), you’re out of luck. While the details are still being worked out, SEPTA Key should work with Google Wallet and Apple Pay.

Similarly, any credit or debit card with Visa payWave, MasterCard’s PayPass or American Express’s ExpressPay will work. Currently, only a few banks in the area offer these NFC-enabled cards, but SEPTA hopes that will change once Key launches. “This could be a catalyst,” said O’Brien. New technologies like this often suffer from a chicken-or-the-egg problem where they are only popular once there are enough users to create a network. Here, there aren’t enough banks offering contactless cards for merchants to invest in NFC payment readers, or there aren’t enough stores accepting NFC payments for banks to invest in the cards, creating a market deadlock.

SEPTA Key might tilt the balance and create a new, Pareto-optimizing equilibrium, with everyone having NFC payment options. (The flipside, of course, is that we stick with this technology even when its old and obsolete, simply because the quasi-state sponsored established network create barriers to entry against competing technologies.)

Passengers who already have a contactless credit or debit card or the right phone will be able to establish a “travel wallet” – an account specifically for travel on SEPTA – on those cards at any Key kiosk or online, thereby making their cards eligible for fare discounts ($1.80 v. $2.25) and $1 transfers (as opposed to paying for a full fare). Basically, with a little set up, NFC equipped cards and phones will work almost exactly like a SEPTA Key Card, meaning many riders won’t need to get a separate fare card.

As previously reported, PATCO Freedom Card users will be able to transfer using just their cards. But despite the fact that this is America, there will be limits to their freedom: the PATCO card won’t work on regional rail and most likely won’t work outside of the immediate transfers. Those transfers, however, will continue at the current discounted rate of $3.10. Details are still being worked out between the two transportation authorities.

Similarly, PlanPhilly previously reported that SEPTA and city officials hoped that what we then called “new payment technology” could be fully integrated with what we once knew as “Philly bike share.” Today, however, we’re unsure whether SEPTA Key will be able to work on Indego. SEPTA Key’s “retail wallet” should work, but more talks are needed on more substantial integration. 

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