‘Tap and go’ on tap for transit fare collections

Welcome to the Escondido Transit Center, run by NCTD./The Grapevine

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System plans to spend $34 million for a new “tap-and-go” fare collection system that will replace one that some riders find inconvenient and that the agency says is outdated.

MTS will pay for the new fare system with federal money and funds from a quarter-cent state sales tax that’s dedicated to transit projects. A spokeswoman for the North County Transit District said that agency will also switch to the same fare system as MTS but has yet to decide how much to spend or how it will be funded.

The MTS fare program has had problems for a long time.

  • Until two years ago, riders couldn’t store money on their Compass Cards, a reusable ticket for daily, weekly and monthly passes, even though the technology has existed for years.
  • The Compass Card launched in 2009 and had data security issues from the start that left users vulnerable to credit card fraud. MTS has made security improvements to the card, but it still doesn’t fully meet industry standards.
  • The Compass Cloud mobile app released two years ago was originally supposed to give riders access to all fare options, but MTS changed the plan. Riders still can’t purchase one-way tickets with it.

The SDSU Transit Center and one of its fare collection machines is shown on July 9, 2019. Machines like this will be replaced when MTS launches a $34 million fare system in late 2021./Brandon Quester for inewsource

MTS hopes the $34 million tap-and-go plan “will be close to our ideal system” when it starts at the end of 2021, agency spokesman Rob Schupp said. The cost includes $11 million for a decade of operation and maintenance.

Billions of federal, state and local tax dollars are spent annually on transportation projects in San Diego County. Where that money should be spent in the future is being debated by politicians, transportation planners and taxpayers.

Even if there weren’t problems with the existing fare system, the upgrade would be necessary. Schupp called the current system “worn out.” Replacement parts for the hardware are no longer available, and the software isn’t being serviced anymore, he said.

Colin Parent, executive director of the nonprofit Circulate San Diego, hopes this time that MTS and NCTD take full advantage of the latest fare technology so the collection system attracts new riders and makes it easier for existing customers to use the region’s buses, trolleys and trains.

“Currently, they’re not using the technology that they have in all the ways that they could,” said Parent, who also is a La Mesa councilman. “Just because they have the new technology doesn’t mean they’re going to make the right choices about how to use the technology.”

This photo, taken on July 9, 2019, shows MTS’s adult Compass Card and the Compass Card app./Brandon Quester for inewsource

One bus rider frustrated by the current system is Kristie Edgmond, a 68-year-old semi-retired accountant. She said she rides the bus a couple of times a week to go downtown from her home in University Heights.

Edgmond would prefer to use the Compass Cloud app, but it won’t let her buy one-way tickets. Rather than pay with cash for a one-way fare, she said she buys a monthly pass — and that means she overpays by about $7 a month.

“Of course, it’s inconvenient, but I’ve gotten used to that here,” Edgmond said.

Schupp said the new fare system will mimic one launched two years ago in Portland, Oregon. It will still let riders use cash to pay for bus and trolley rides and to purchase passes at ticket-vending machines, he said.

But with tap-and-go, riders will also have the option of using credit cards with smart chips, mobile wallets on Android and iPhones, and a reusable card. They’ll use their card or phone to tap a device on the bus or trolley, and the fare will be deducted from their accounts.

Ticket charges will cap out when riders reach the total fare for a daily or monthly pass. MTS hopes this will incentivize people to use mass transit because they’ll be guaranteed the best price. This also means customers won’t have the upfront expense of purchasing a daily or monthly pass whose full value they might not use.


By agreement, The Grapevine publishes investigative, in-depth data-driven journalism from independent non-profit inewsource based at San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. For more from inewsource, visit http://inewsource.org/about/.

Lauren J. Mapp is a reporting intern at inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email laurenmapp [at] inewsource [dot] org.

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