There was this SEPTA booth clerk who couldn't sell tokens ...

SEPTA has big plans for its new fare system - some day. Here, revenue maintence workers program the gates at the 63rd St. Station. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer / FILE )

Maybe the third time will do the charm for SEPTA long-delayed 'smart-card' fare system, but Philadelphia transit riders have every right to be peeved as they're left waiting on the platform.

Now it won't be until the fall at the earliest that transit agency officials will award a contract for a new electronic system that would replace tokens and paper tickets on buses, subways, trolleys, and trains. Installing the expected $100-million system will take another few years beyond that.

The latest delay in the deadline for bids - it was just pushed back until Aug. 18 - revolves around the esoteric but critical concept of whether SEPTA will own the rights to the system under intellectual property rules.

For years, though, SEPTA has been stymied by its pursuit of a fare system that offered the latest doo-dads and use of the most flexible fare collection means. With that mindset, there's always a reason to delay in anticipation of the next new innovation just around the corner.

No quarrel with transit officials' present goal of allowing passengers to pay for their rides with a credit card, prepaid SEPTA fare card, and even a cell phone. It would great, too, if SEPTA riders could easily transfer to PATCO trains under the fare system.

A flexible fare system certainly would be bring an unheard-of ease for regular riders and occasional customers like tourists and office workers who hop on the Broad Street Subway to catch a ball game a few times each year. (The new fare system also might resolve gripes of riders who complain that male and female stickers on passes are discriminatory.)

How many years has SEPTA been beat up in the media and around the office water cooler with stories of riders' confused search for tokens? Too long. The SEPTA ticket booth operator who isn't allowed to make change or sell tokens has become an unwitting symbol of the Philly apparatchik.

With SEPTA general manager Joseph M. Casey's focus on customer service, there's every reason to believe the transit agency eventually will deliver a fare system that improves the ride.

Casey is making rider-friendly tweaks - like the announcement this week of a new partnership with Google that enables riders to plan their trips online using Google Transit.

Other cities, though, have managed to install more flexible transit fare systems already. At this point, SEPTA has the right design goals in mind. Agency officials just need to get the project moving.