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Sacramento Light Rail on Track for New Payment Technology

Watch for an RFP this summer as the light rail agency becomes the state’s first to accept credit cards, debit cards and other payment methods for fares.

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Sacramento Regional Transit light rail is on track to becoming the state’s first to accept fare payment with the tap of a credit or debit card. Watch for an RFP this summer.
A month after Monterey County’s transit agency became the state’s first public transit system to allow riders to tap their debit or credit cards to pay for their rides, the Sacramento Regional Transit District is on track to becoming the state’s first light rail system to do the same.

Both projects were made possible by several tech companies and the California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP), an initiative led by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) that helps agencies launch demonstration projects to ultimately enable easy and accessible travel planning and payments.

SacRT spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez said the touchless solution will be first rolled out on its Green Line trains and will be installed over the summer on the full light rail fleet.

“The innovative touch-free fare payment technology will allow riders to tap a contactless credit, debit, prepaid card, or contactless-enabled mobile or wearable device (e.g., smartwatch) to pay (their) fare when boarding light rail trains,” Gonzalez told Techwire. She said the goal is to improve the customer experience.

The technology was developed by Visa, Visa subsidiary Cybersource, Littlepay (a transit-focused payments platform) and SC Soft (a transit ticketing and automated fare collection specialist). It was deployed in Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) buses effective May 11.

“Visa recognizes the importance of expanding eligibility and access to fare payment options that meet the needs of a diverse set of transit riders,” Brian Cole, Visa’s head of North America product, said in a statement. “This effort with MST and Caltrans illustrates how open, contactless payments can support innovative and equitable fare policies to benefit riders and transit operators across the state.”

Carl Sedoryk, MST’s CEO and general manager, said Visa and its partners are not charging the agency for the pilot program. At the end of the six-month project, he said, the district will decide whether to sign a contract to continue.

So far, he said the demonstration program is working well.

“There have been no complaints or instances of hardware failure. So far, it’s been very reliable and is being used daily by passengers. Three weeks in, we’ve gotten over 1,500 taps. The biggest question we get is, when will we be able to offer discounted fares,” he said.

He said the next phase of the project is to work with Cal-ITP and the California Department of Motor Vehicles to coordinate a program interface that would allow the system to immediately determine whether a rider qualifies for a senior, veteran or disability discount and apply it to the fare.

Already in place is the ability to charge riders only for the distance traveled by having them tap when they board and again when they get off. The district charges $1.50 for trips within a city, $2.50 for trips to nearby cities, $3.50 for a longer run like Monterey to Salinas, and $10 for the long-haul trips to Paso Robles and San Jose.

Previously, if a rider got on a $3.50 bus but went only a few stops, they would have to pay the full fare. But now if they use the tap card technology, they’re charged just the base $1.50 fare.

Cal-ITP Program Manager Gillian Gillett said the goal is for California transit systems to transition away from the current “closed-loop” fare collection method that accepts only cash or agency-specific fare cards to an “open-loop” model that accepts contactless credit and debit cards and mobile wallets on smart devices that can be used throughout different transit systems and anywhere else that accepts contactless payments.

She added that the state Department of General Services expects to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for PAD and transit processor services this summer. It will be available online. The website also includes information about 300 public transit providers in the state.

Cal-ITP is also working to ensure that global data standards for transit information — known as the General Transit Feed Specification, or GTFS — include fare information. GTFS-Fares v2 will enable transit riders to see how much their bus or train trip will cost on journey-planning apps like Google and Apple Maps. In the coming months, Cal-ITP will be working with Caltrans’ Division of Rail and Mass Transportation to provide support to California transit agencies on fare encoding, to help agencies leverage this new global standard.
John Frith is a Folsom-based writer and editor with a background in state, local and federal legislative affairs as well as journalism and public relations.