MBTA to propose $723M overhaul of fare system

BOSTON (AP) – MBTA riders may soon bid farewell to their CharlieCards.

The Boston-area transit system was poised Monday to begin an overhaul of its fare collection system that would eventually phase out the present-day fare cards and allow riders to board trains, trolleys and buses with a tap of a credit card or smartphone.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s control board was expected to approve a 13-year, $723 million contract with Cubic Corp. to design and operate the new system, which officials hope to fully implement by the spring of 2020.

“The best fare collection system is one that disappears, one that gets out of the customer’s way and that is what we intend to provide,” said David Block-Schachter, the agency’s chief technology officer.

Transit officials predicted the project would speed up the boarding process for passengers, reduce fare evasion and, if all goes to plan, cost about $65 million less to operate over the course of the contract than if the current system remained in place.

Under the new system, riders would no longer be able to pay cash fares when they board buses or trolleys. But cash customers could still purchase fare cards from vending machines at MBTA stations and at dozens of participating retail stores, Block-Schachter said.

About 7 percent of the T’s ridership currently pays cash, he said.

The revamped system would allow passengers to board vehicles by tapping a credit card or smartphone to fare readers installed at all of the doors on buses and trolleys.

Commuter rail passengers would be required to tap both entering and exiting trains to measure distance traveled and assign fares accordingly, Block-Schachter explained.

The project also calls for redesigned fare gates that will be wider to more easily accommodate passengers with wheelchairs, baby strollers or luggage.

“During the course of the time this is in place, there will be other technological advances that occur and improvements that can be made as we update the system over time to improve performance even more,” added Luis Ramirez, chief executive officer of the MBTA.

The fare technology has already been proven to work on other large transit systems, he said.

Cubic has deployed similar systems in other cities including London, Sydney, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco, transit officials said.

The $723 million deal is more expensive than automated fare contracts awarded by other U.S. cities, including New York, but Boston officials said a key difference is that Cubic will not only design the system but operate and maintain it as well through 2031.

The contract also includes two 5-year options at the end of the contract, conceivably extending it to 23 years.

While today’s CharlieCard would be retired, the revamped fare system would continue to use the “Charlie” brand, Ramirez said. The name is borrowed from a 1949 song popularized by the Kingston Trio about a man doomed “to ride forever beneath the streets of Boston,” because he lacked the correct change to get off the subway.

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