‘Technology is changing’: SEPTA finally giving its troubled Key card a reboot

A customer holds up a SEPTA Key card.

A customer holds up a SEPTA Key card. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

SEPTA is planning to roll out SEPTA Key 2.0.

Authority officials are conducting an industry-wide review of fare payment systems and asking experts for their input on how to improve the troubled Key card.

Through a Request for Information announced Monday, officials hope to ultimately create a fare payment system that can change with the times and adapt to riders’ needs, offer more convenience to riders, and open the door to partnerships with other transit providers.

No budget for 2.0 has been set yet.

“Technology is changing,” SEPTA Deputy General Manager Rich Burnfield said. “We want to hear from the vendors as to how we can make riding SEPTA as easy as we can for our customers.”

The effort is another part of the authority’s Five-Year Strategic Plan and comes as SEPTA revamps its bus system with its Comprehensive Bus Network Redesign, or Bus Revolution.

“SEPTA Key 2.0 will help ensure that we stay up-to-date with constantly-evolving fare collection technology,” said SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards. “This is a critical investment in our customers, and an important part of SEPTA’s strategic plan.”

SEPTA first officially introduced the Key card back in 2016, nine years after the authority announced it would move away from tokens to smart cards for fare payment. The Key suffered a series of hiccups and delays leading up to its introduction.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last year that the cost of the original contract with Conduent Inc. for the fare payment system ballooned from over $122 million to more than $200 million. And somehow Key seems no better for it.

The authority still requires Key users to tote a card, while other peer legacy agencies in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, for example, have adopted mobile fare payment. Furthermore, complaints of Key malfunctions continue.

More than 500 million transactions have been made using the Key, according to SEPTA officials. They say those transactions will get easier with the advancements on the way. For example, this summer, SEPTA officials plan to roll out SEPTA Key to CCT Connect service, and, in September, officials plan to roll out a Key card program for School District of Philadelphia students.

The authority is also in the process of replacing more than 5,000 Key card readers to prepare for mobile fare payment, officials said, and by late 2021 or early 2022, riders can finally ditch the cards and use their mobile phones to pay for their trips: first through mobile ticketing, where riders pay with a digital ticket, then with open fare payment where riders can use Apple Pay or another form of digital payment through their phone.

With these changes in mind, SEPTA wants to use the RFI process to create a bid that would offer multiple vendors an opportunity to take the Key into the future.

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