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Thursday, May 26, 2011

VTA Buys New Fareboxes - Is it Just a Waste of Money?

Silicon Valley's VTA is going to get a new toy for their fleet of buses, a new farebox.

In a press release from their outreach department, they state their current fareboxes are over 20 years old and at the end of their normal life cycle. Due to the aging fare collection boxes, they intend to purchase new boxes which will have more features for passengers. The boxes will be first installed on lines 22, 37, 72, 73, and 82, and full installation of the fleet will be done during the remainder of the summer.

The agency's website shows all the details about the new farebox. Unlike the old machines, these machines will be able to electronically count the types of coins inserted, and any bill up to $20. They will also issue day passes direct from the farebox with RFID technology so passengers can touch their card to another vehicle's farebox for entry. The box also has a magnetic card reader for passengers of Highway 17 Express and MST passes to board without showing it to the VTA operator.

Clipper card passengers will still use the Clipper card reader near the farebox (not the "day pass" card reader on the farebox), and those with paper transfers issued from agencies like AC Transit and BART will still be required to physically present it to the driver.

The manufacturer of the fareboxes is GFI Genfare, and the farebox VTA has selected is also used in other transit agencies, including Golden Gate Transit, LA Metro, and Washington DC Metro.


Akit's Opinion

In all honesty, I feel the purchasing of the new equipment is just a total waste of VTA's own money. OK fine, their current fare boxes are too old, but can't they just spend their money rehabbing them? Muni did this when their fareboxes was starting to break down too frequently and they contracted with Cubic Transportation Systems (manufacturers of Muni's fareboxes) to rehabilitate the boxes with new internal equipment and now they work so much better than before. Muni realized that rehabbing their boxes was much more cost effective at $15,200 each ($19 million contract divided by 1,250 fareboxes), and was able to get all the boxes rehabbed in 15 months vs. 36 months with new machines (SF Examiner article).

VTA also wants their new machines to spit out day passes in the form of paper RFID cards so other new fareboxes can easily read the card, just like a Clipper card. While a nice feature, it's not worth the money. Paper RFID cards are not that cheap to produce as Muni has to spend about $2.1 million a year on those to issue single and round-trip rides for their ticketing machines at metro stations (they cost about 35 cents each). A more cost effective option is for VTA to have their machines issue magnetic stripe tickets which are much cheaper and not pay extra for the RFID target card reader; this means, tickets issued can be quickly swiped at the designated location or inserted into the machine for verification.

GFI Genfare machines to be used on VTA might not be as exciting as the agency would like for you to believe. There are numerous complaints about the slowness of the machine as both drivers and passengers just hate using it.
  • A well documented case comes from Golden Gate Transit where their new official policy says drivers cannot assist passengers in inserting currency into the machine. The agency states the money inserted must be in very good condition in order for the machine to verify the bills. A large number of complaints from passengers says the bills needs to be in very good condition as the machine also verifies for counterfeit bills while also identifying what the amount is. Other agencies like Muni and AC Transit does not use verification and makes it quicker for passengers to insert their cash and the driver verifies through a window what type of bill was inserted. And why such perfect bills for the farebox? BART's ticket vending machines takes even the crappiest looking bills that have been crunched up and creases galore and accepts them with ease.
  • VTA's YouTube video states that coins can be accepted at the machines, but needs to be inserted one at a time as inserting multiple coins will jam the machine. Inserting one coin at a time is not a fast way when a passenger with pocket change needs to pay their fare. Other fare boxes like Muni's can take multiple coins at once and quickly calculate what amount was just inserted, and this means faster boarding and drivers can stick to their schedules; inserting one coin at a time takes FOREVER. Muni = Coinstar, VTA = Soda machine coin slot.
A feature GFI fareboxes can also do is issue "change cards" which is used for when a passenger pays with a bill that is higher than the fare needed to pay for the ride. Golden Gate Transit issues a change card when the difference is more than $1, and thereby the change card can be used for a future ride as fare credit or be treated like a debit card for multiple rides until the card is used up. VTA says they are willing to accept up to $20, but their transit fares (including day passes) don't even get that close.

Lastly, what really doesn't make sense is, why get these nifty fareboxes instead of just supporting and promoting Clipper? Is there really a need for the fareboxes to issue RFID day passes instead of asking Clipper to handle the job? Clipper is considering a day pass option for their card users by having passengers pay for their VTA rides with e-cash, and when it reaches a daily accumulated purchasing limit, the rest of the rides for the day is FREE. If that happens, there's no need for VTA's fare boxes to issue day passes and they can just restrict it to Clipper cards only for the purpose of getting passengers into their buses quickly, and also means less maintenance and replenishing of paper RFID cards for the fareboxes.

When Golden Gate Transit got their new boxes, they sold high value cards which can be used to purchase rides by inserting it into their boxes and deducting the balance (like a BART ticket). But everyone knew (and GGT was oblivious for a long time) that it was just an insult because the Clipper card made it quicker to pay their fare and everyone got an automatic ride discount as per GGT policy.


On a side note, you may have wondered why my blog posts have been sporadic for the month. A couple of things happened during this period:
  1. I was on vacation for three weeks and this included a two week cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. The internet on the ship was expensive and very slow at times, and I couldn't dedicate a lot of time writing blog posts.
  2. During my vacation my last remaining grandparent passed away, and the family had memorial services upon the return of the ship to SF, as well as I had to fly to Hawaii for services for family out there (she was born in Honolulu). My employer gave me five days paid leave, which I used to fly to Hawaii. I am fortunate to see some of my family members I haven't seen in a decade, including one of my cousins I haven't seen in nearly 15 years.
It's been a challenging month for me, and I appreciate you for sticking around to read my blog. Take care and have a nice upcoming three day weekend.


Raymond said...

Westcat uses the same farebox. I thought that RFID reader would be used for Clipper once the agency gets on board. I am saddened to hear that the Clipper reader will still be separate from the farebox.

Akit said...

It would be the most economical to have them all in one, but one problem is GFI Genfare's farebox rival is Cubic; Cubic is also the manufacturer of Clipper's technology. Cubic makes fareboxes too, but someone would pay a big royalty to make them all work as one.

N312NW said...

Cubic and GFI have worked togheter in the past, specificly with MTS and NCTD here in San Diego, and MARTA in Atlanta. Where Odyssey fareboxes have been merged with Cubic Equipment.

etthekid said...

Also, SamTrans is doing the same thing as VTA, the Summer/Fall they are replacing their old fare boxes for the same fare boxes VTA are transitioning into right now.

Was on one of the SamTrans buses earlier and they are beginning to have how-to pamphlets on the bus schedule racks on the buses.