All aboard SEPTA's new fare card

Shirley Thomas gets advice from Norma Clark, a SEPTA ambassador, about the new smart fare card. The early adopter program is phasing in SEPTA Key, the smart card that will replace tokens and TransPasses for subways, trolleys, buses, and rail.

For those who were among the first to buy SEPTA's new smart fare card Monday morning, the sheer novelty was a big part of the draw.

"I just wanted to get a daily [pass] to see what it was like," said Dennis Grimes, of Philadelphia, who passed through Dilworth Plaza Station on his way to work at a Center City health-care company.

At 6 a.m., when SEPTA's yellow-vested ambassadors arrived at the two silver kiosks in the station to help customers with the new SEPTA Key fare system, people were already waiting. By midday, SEPTA had sold 1,650 of the 10,000 early adopter cards available on a first come, first served basis.

"They're happy with that number," said Andrew Busch, SEPTA spokesman. "It is about where we expect it to be."

Dilworth Plaza reported some of the most robust card sales, with kiosks at Snyder Station and the 69th Street, Frankford and Olney transportation centers also getting heavy use.

The early adopter program is designed to phase in SEPTA Key, the smart card that ultimately will replace tokens and TransPasses as the fare instrument for subways, trolleys, buses, and rail. The $220 million system was to debut in 2013, but delays and software bugs kept pushing back the introduction.

Monday, people could buy a weekly pass for $24 or a daily pass for $8. On June 20 the monthly pass will be available for $91.

Cards can be registered online and, once that is done, can be linked to a bank account. Balances are preserved even if the card gets lost.

SEPTA is introducing just some of Key's options, officials have said. Eventually the turnstile scanners will accept payments from contactless credit cards and smartphone systems such as Apple Pay. There will also be a SEPTA Wallet that will allow people to draw down on their card per ride, rather than committing to a pass.

That's what Shirley Thomas, of West Philadelphia, is waiting for. She talked with one of the ambassadors assigned to help customers at Dilworth, Plaza but decided against getting a card yet. She was in Center City to submit a permit for a Fourth of July block party, and said she doesn't use public transportation often enough to buy a weekly pass. She relies on tokens. She wants one of the cards, though.

"I won't have to run to the store all the time to get tokens," she said.

SEPTA is not saying when it will offer all the card services or when they will be available to all riders. Management wants to see how the first 10,000 cards function before making them available for the 1.1 million trips taken daily on SEPTA's vehicles.

Billy Bauer, a chemical engineering student at Drexel, was among the first 30 people to buy the card at Dilworth Plaza on Monday. The monthly pass had not made sense for him before because a student discount gave him a better rate, he said, but Key allowed him to pay for his fare with plastic, a convenience long lacking at SEPTA stations.

"I've always wanted to use my debit card anyway," Bauer said.