SEPTA names its long-overdue smart-card system

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Frame from septa.org promotional video showing use of SEPTA Key, the transportation system's new smart card.

SEPTA's long-delayed, $130-million smart-card payment system will be called SEPTA Key, the agency announced Thursday.

Like Ben Franklin's key. Get it?

But unlike Franklin's kite experiment, no lightning speed is involved with SEPTA's move away from tokens, passes and tickets.

The first new subway turnstiles are in place, but widespread use of the card on subways and buses won't happen till next year, and on Regional Rail, not until 2016 at least.

The new system will allow riders to use any "contactless" credit card or a SEPTA-issued card or even a smartphone to pay their fares at card-reading turnstiles or bus fare boxes.

When SEPTA announced in 2007 its plans to proceed with an electronic fare system, it said it hoped to have the smart-card operation in place by 2010. When the contract was eventually awarded to Xerox Corp. in 2011, SEPTA officials predicted that bus and subway riders would be using smart cards by 2013 and Regional Rail riders by 2014.

SEPTA officials reiterated Thursday they were more interested in getting it right than getting it fast.

They have pointed to myriad problems in Chicago when its Ventra smart-card system was rolled out in 2013.

"It is important that we do everything possible to ensure its readiness before the launch," SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey said Thursday. "SEPTA Key will play a fundamental role in moving the region forward. It will be the key to your commute, play and everywhere in between."

SEPTA will issue cards to staffers and a handful of selected customers to test its new system in December. If those tests reveal no glaring problems, the new system will by phased in for riders of SEPTA buses and Market-Frankford and Broad Street subways next year.

The Regional Rail network, which will require a more complex reconfiguration of Center City stations, won't be included until 2016.

SEPTA said riders will be able to continue to use tokens during the initial rollout of the new system and will get ample warning before tokens are phased out.

More information on the smart-card program is available at www.septa.org/key/


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