PHILADELPHIA — A public transit system that still uses metal tokens and paper transfers — yes, in the 21st century — appears finally to be moving into the era of debit cards and pay-by-cellphone technology.
Philadelphia riders can now see evidence of SEPTA Key, the long-awaited smart card system for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. Dozens of computerized kiosks, turnstiles and fare boxes have popped up in stations and on vehicles, and testing begins this month.
"We see this project as taking us in the fare payment industry from last place to first place," said Kevin O'Brien, SEPTA senior program manager.
What exactly does "last place" mean? Let's start with Philadelphia being one of the few cities in North America to still use tokens for buses, subways and trolleys. Chicago stopped selling them in 1999, followed by New York in 2003 and Boston in 2006. (Though Toronto continues to use them.)
However, SEPTA doesn't have token machines at every station, and cashiers aren't always on duty. When they are, they don't necessarily sell tokens; sometimes, they just accept exact change for the $2.25 cash fare — which, by the way, is higher than the $1.80 token cost.
Oh, and token machines don't take credit cards.
This is how the nation's sixth-largest transportation system operates? Incredibly, the answer is yes.
Which leaves a lot of ground to cover to reach "first place." But officials say that SEPTA Key, when fully implemented, will be the most comprehensive and seamless fare system in the U.S., offering multiple payment options and integration with commuter trains.
Every subway station will have kiosks that accept credit and debit cards. Riders with microchipped bank cards or a cellphone app can pay right at the turnstile or bus fare box. And forget about those paper bus transfers — Key cards recognize connected trips and deduct accordingly.
SEPTA has been promising the changes at least as far back as 2007 but didn't award the $130 million contract until 2011. The program was delayed by funding problems such as reductions in state aid and other mandated safety spending, agency spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.
SEPTA officials are coy about when customers will finally get Keys to the system; they say only that it should roll out in 2015 and be completed the following year. That's comparable to the five years it took Boston to fully deploy its CharlieCard system.
The Key card can't come soon enough for Catherine Anderson. The subway station closest to her west Philadelphia home doesn't have a token machine, and the cashier booth isn't staffed during off-peak hours.
"I just find that really frustrating," said Anderson, 31. "I don't know why there aren't token machines everywhere."
SEPTA does sell weekly and monthly passes that commuters can swipe in turnstiles and fare boxes. But they can't be renewed; riders have to wait in line to purchase new ones from an attendant at the start of each week or month. With the new system, those passes will be available — and renewable — at any kiosk, anytime.
Ravi Bayanker, who recently moved to Philadelphia, still can't believe his credit cards are useless in the current arcane system. He recently paid $5 to ride the subway because he had no tokens and the booth attendant wouldn't make change.
"What business in America doesn't give change to its customers?" he said.
Williams acknowledged the custom is cumbersome for riders, but she said it's efficient for SEPTA.
Bayanker longs for the MetroCards he previously used in New York, which he could load with money and use it at his leisure. "I just want a SEPTA pass with $100 on it," he said.
That will happen eventually, and Bayanker will even be able to add value to the card online. For now, he's better off stocking up on tokens, which are still used by 22 percent of riders, according to SEPTA officials.
The agency hasn't yet announced a phase-out date for tokens.
As troublesome as they can be, Anderson has a soft spot in her heart for the metal coins. She and her boyfriend even dressed up as a token and token machine for Halloween — whimsical costumes that brought a lot of attention on the street and on social media.
"We thought, 'We have to do it this year because next year the tokens may be gone,'" Anderson said.