"Akit is the man. He knows Clipper." (spenta)
"It’s a fantastic blog for any San Franciscan."
"Your blog is always on point, and well researched!" (Nina Decker)
"Everyone's favorite volunteer public policy consultant..." (Eve Batey, SF Appeal)
"You are doing a great job keeping on top of Translink stuff. Keep up the good work!"
(Greg Dewar, N Judah Chronicles)
"...I don't even bother subscribing anywhere else for my local public transportation info. You have it all..."
(Empowered Follower)
"If anyone at City Hall wants to make public transit better for all San Franciscans, it would be wise to follow Akit religiously...
or, better yet, give him a job."
(Brock Keeling, SFist)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

MTC and Clipper to Close Loop on Negative Balance Feature for BART

BART Gate & Clipper Card

The history of the Clipper card program (formerly known as TransLink) has always permitted card users to allow their card to go into the negative if there's at least $0.01 [positive] credit on the card; but once it goes into the negative, the card cannot be further used until replenished with money back to positive balance.  The idea behind the negative balance policy is both a honor approach for people to promise to keep their cards and replenish when negative, but also for agencies that operates on a distance based or zone system: Clipper cannot accurately charge the proper fare upon the initial tag when boarding a bus (Golden Gate Transit) or at a train station (BART and Caltrain); therefore the negative balance policy will have to remain indefinitely.

When things went insane...
However, back in November 2010, the can of worms that has been kept stable for nearly a decade suddenly exploded when Streetsblog SF, and other major news stations exposed the negative balance policy.  It suddenly changed from a policy with good intentions, to an easy way for passengers to  cheat transit agencies of transit fares with literally no risk of getting caught.  The way to do it was simple, purchase a new Clipper card with the required minimum balance and use it on a transit agency where the fare was higher than the balance placed on the card.  Back in 2010, all a person had to spend was $2 to get a new card and a $2 e-cash balance, and the passenger simply rode any transit agency whose fare was more than $2.  After ending the ride, simply dump the card in a trash can and go through the cycle again.  It was easily untraceable if passengers paid in cash for a card and did not register the card with Clipper.

MTC and Clipper fought back, by raising the minimum e-cash balance to obtain a card to $5, but did not enforce a policy to pay an additional fee to obtain a new card, but even with $5, there are still a bunch zone/distance rides that costs more than $5 one-way, such as taking the BART train to SFO.

In the long run, the negative balances started adding up into the six figures per year, and that does not include the cost per card to replace the ones dumped in the trash.  Back in September 2011, I reported the negative balance feature on Clipper cards was being abused at a rate of $360,000 per year in lost transit fares, and when including all the costs of procuring cards, the MTC spends a grand total of nearly $700,000 per year.

The solution?
The MTC is planning to spend some money in order to plug up one agency that has racked-up 60% of all negative balances, and that's BART.

This Friday, the Operations Committee will have a meeting to vote if the commission should spend $625,000 to end the negative balance problem for BART.

How?  Simple, the contractor (Cubic Transportation Systems) will be paid to upgrade all the exitfare machines in the BART system to force passengers with insufficient funds to add more money to their Clipper card before being allowed to exit.  It's just like the old school magnetic stripe tickets so people don't pay the minimum fare to obtain a ticket, and exit at a station for a ride costing $10.

By doing this, the MTC will save an estimated $216,000 per year in negative balances (or $420,000 per year if you include cost of procuring new cards).  Even though the contract to upgrade the exitfare machines is over $600,000, in the long run, the investment will pay off in a matter of a few years.

While this still does not plug-up the holes with the remaining 40% of other transit agencies still taking negative balance abuse, at least plugging up the worst offender (BART) is a step in the right direction.

Another feature of upgrading the exitfare machines?
As the MTC is planning to allow the exitfare machines to accept Clipper cards, this could also be the next step for passengers who utilizes paid BART parking lots to also use their card to pay for their parking fees.  Instead of a mirror hang tag (that is used today), it would be the same as using a BART mag stripe ticket to insert into a exitfare machine to punch in the parking stall number to pay their parking.


Anonymous said...

Clipper is prohibited by federal law from allowing riders to pay for BART parking using Clipper cash funds, because it can't tell if any of those funds were paid for with tax-deductible commuter checks, which may not be used to pay for parking.

Akit said...

I was going to mention that fact, but didn't want to get into the complexities about that mess.