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another year without TransLink

By enelson
Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007 at 5:46 pm in AC Transit, BART, Buses, Fare systems, technology.

translink-reader.jpgSince I arrived here in March, I have come to appreciate the delicate tapestry, make that irregularly stitched quilt, that is the Bay Area. The diversity of locales, attitudes and interest make the region fascinating, but at the same time, not entirely cohesive.

I recently learned that while LA may be a transportation nightmare, at least the place is unified, for the most part, into one municipality of 3 million souls inside one mega-county of 10 million. Standardizing something like a fare system is a snap. Want to build mass transit? The machine will get it done, no matter how egregious the cost overruns, waste, fraud and abuse.

Here in the Cities by the Bay, however, we have a rapid transit system that works on one fare system connecting three dozen other transit agencies, each with its own peculiar way of doing business.

Thanks to the unifying force of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, we now have TransLink, or so I thought until today, when I received an apologetic e-mail from the AC Transit TransLink Team:

We very much appreciate your willingness to participate in AC Transit’s TransLink pre-launch, and deeply apologize for the continuing delay in fulfilling your request for a free TransLink card.

Just as we were about to mail out 1,000 TransLink card packages, we discovered system problems on a larger-than-acceptable proportion of our bus fleet.

While we fully expect pre-launch participants to encounter minor problems, we will not deliberately subject you to major difficulties or misuse your valuable time with problems that we have already identified. Due to the number of the buses affected, we made the decision to withhold the distribution of TransLink cards until these issues are corrected. We are pushing as hard as we can for a speedy resolution, but regret that we cannot offer a firm date of when pre-launch cards will be mailed to you.

All I could think was, no Virginia, there is no such thing as TransLink. This was supposed to be a single smart-card fare system for the whole area, one that would permit the rider to get on and off of BART with just a wave of the card and do the same for every bus and trolley from Vacaville to Vista Verde, from Midway to Miramar.

What is it in 2007? It’s scheduled to “launch” on two of the area’s larger bus systems, AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit, allowing riders to make a seamless commute from, say, Newark to Novato via bus connection in the Transbay Terminal. I’m sure that there are people who do such commutes, but I’m willing to plunk down my flimsy paper $8 discount BART card to bet that 98 percent of those people drive.

But the launch will have to wait, because the apology was for delaying something called the “pre-launch,” or trial period with a small number of users to iron out kinks in the system so they don’t make many thousands of riders angry.

As it turns out, AC Transit didn’t even want to “deliberately subject” even the first 1,000 trial users to such inconvenience. The problems were noted by fewer than 100 employees of AC Transit and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, plus a few hangers-on who got some of those cards slipped to them (I’ll never divulge my source).

As it happens, I got on a bus at Oakland Airport (not AirBART, thank you very much) the day before Thanksgiving and the AC Transit driver told me “we’re not using those yet,” and urged me to take a seat, gratis. I sat down, saw I was eye-to-eye with the TransLink reader, waved it, and it happily beeped the “OK” signal. The machine was working but the driver didn’t realize it.

But the overriding problem now is that the machines aren’t working as field testing showed they were.

On Dec. 28, AC Transit staff hung out at 14th and Broadway in Oakland and checked 54 buses that stopped to find that 13 of them had some kind of problem, such as readers that wouldn’t read or were simply powered off.

“At this point we do not have a diagnosis to the point where we’re not sure if it’s hardware or software,” said AC Transit’s customer services manager, Ken Rhodes. “We don’t have a clear idea of why something is happening in the field that wasn’t happening during testing,” so the agency is working with contractor ERG Transit Systems of Concord to solve the problem.

Several transportation officials have grumbled to me that TransLink has cost way more money ($150 million) than it was supposed to ($38 million), especially considering that it’s old enough to graduate from high school and has yet to actually serve anyone besides transportation officials and an intimate cadre of journalists who write about TransLink.

Meanwhile, BART has developed its own smart card, called EZ Rider, which uses readers that BART officials say can be programmed some day to read TransLink cards, too. You see, the company that made BART’s fare gates also makes smart cards and didn’t get the TransLink contract.

So there it is, Democracy in action: Everybody continues to go their own way, nobody agrees and nothing works.

Is it possible that Iraq will get its act together sooner than our various transit systems?

Photo of TransLink reader from>

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21 Responses to “another year without TransLink”

  1. Doug Faunt Says:

    I actually have one, without being anyone special, I might add, and have used it successfully a number of times. OTOH, I’ve gotten as many free rides, too.

    But one of the problems I had was that I made a mistake, boarded a TransBay bus bound for SF and swiped my card, but the TransLink reader was set for the local fare. I paid the rest of my fare, and sent email to the TransLink people saying that, yes, I’d made a mistake, and what’s the procedure for correcting that sort of mistake, which won’t be uncommon. Their answer was, essentially, you’re not supposed to make mistakes. Err, right.

  2. Josh R. Says:

    I’m confused: you’re saying they’ve postponed the pre-launch, but haven’t they officially launched ( for AC Transit? At least that’s the impression I’ve gotten. They were certainly prompt about charging me the $5 for the privilege of owning a card. Could it be that they’ve opted to skip sending out the free cards in favor of making more early-adopters pay? (Those of us who use commuter checks are forced to pay, as far as I can tell.)

    The byzantine nature of Bay Area commuting is a disgrace, and the fact that this project has taken so long to launch is ridiculous. One needs only to experience the smooth, modern transit system in a place like Hong Kong to get a sense of what commuting could be like.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Josh, it is still possible to use TransLink cards on AC Transit buses, its just that they haven’t put another 1,000 card-bearers out there to try out the new hardware and driver training. So your $5 was not paid in vain. Some of those readers will be more than happy to deduct it from your balance. And if you’re lucky, as I was at the airport, you’ll get a driver will tell you to just take a seat because he doesn’t understand that the reader in his bus is working fine, or, in the case of a bunch of the buses surveyed, the reader isn’t working and you still get the default TransLink service, which is also free.

  4. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I have been using mine regularly for a few months now. Recently I have been using it with a local AC Transit pass and ecash for when I go to San Francisco. The passes are risky business. Despite what Translink says, it is definitely not ready for prime time, particularly for pass users. AC Transit is definitely being more realistic about the system.

    The readers do not work on many buses. Sometimes they will work for a while, and then stop working, according to the drivers. I have hit only one bus that could not read my card, even though the reader said it was working. I bet a lot of problems could be solved merely by rebooting the computers, but there does not seem to be a way of doing that. If the computer can figure out that it is not working or not, it should be able to reboot by itself.

    The most annoying problem is not knowing whether the reader is set for $1.75 or $3.50. I have learned where the button is to change it (it is on the dashboard), but the problem is that the screen alternates between saying “Tag Your Card”, which I do not need to know, and the value it is set for, which I do need to know. I got on a local bus that was set for $3.50 once, and overpaid by $1.75. (Everything sort of averages out, however, with the occasional free ride, or transbay ride at local price.)

    It would be better on the local buses it always took the local fare, and on the transbay only buses it always took the transbay fare, and on the buses that carry both transbay and local riders, tagging the card twice would deduct the transbay fare.

    Also, if you have a pass on the card, and renew it using an Add Value machine, the card gets 31 more days on it from the date of expiration of the previous pass, rather than 31 days from the time of first use after expiration. This is a serious problem. I admit I was doing it to test it out, and I was intending to use the card the day after the first pass expired. But I got a cold, and did not use it for a couple of days, and lost two days’ use that I would have had if I had been using paper passes. Such are the tribulations beta testers go through!

    Ken Rhodes wrote me and said that it will work properly if you use auto load. However, many of the neediest riders do not have access to the banking services that are required to use auto load. Why do the machines not just tell the account to auto load for the next month? Why was this not caught a long time ago?

    There are some advantages. It is can be easier to use. It is advantageous to pay for transfers when you use them, rather than guessing ahead of time whether you will need one or not. But so far, it is definitely a mixed experience. My advice is to wait, unless you are not ready to put up with a lot of problems, and to act as a beta tester.

  5. Liz Says:

    I don’t know why they can’t merge all the transits in the Bay Area. I had to go from Pleasanton to San Leandro to San Pablo and had to use 5 different transits and their various fares. The Translink idea seems like a lot of political pork to me. Someone is getting paid off.

  6. Jack Says:

    I’m OK with Vacaville, but I have never heard of Vista Verde, Midway or Miramar. Sure you are not still confusing us with SoCal?

  7. Mike Cunningham Says:

    Erik, believe it or not, the Translink program was “launched” with some fanfare in 1993 (I recently came across an invitation for the kick-off event) … 14 years later we’re still holding our breath for preliminary roll-out, and full deployment across all operators is expected in 2010 (17 years after “launch”, assuming no further delays). Translink came about after concluding that it was politically impossible to merge some of our over 2 dozen transit agencies; it was thought that it would be easier to leave the agencies alone but make the customer experience seamless with a unified farecard. Well, it turns out that it’s also challenging to implement a universal farecard across over two dozen different transit agencies, each with very different fare structures and rules. The “simple” solution turns out to not be so simple. The lesson is that we’ll never have convenient region-wide transit without reducing the number of transit agencies.

  8. david vartanoff Says:

    No, the lesson is that despite controlling a great deal of the funding wasted so far on translink, MTC has NOT chosen to enforce participation in the already successful BART PLUS a ‘low tech’ but FUNCTIONAL system. Each operating agency could easily have implemented a method for honoring the pass and accounting usage so as to be paid. As a detail in this mess, who was the genius who allowed BART to plant new TWMs in the joint use stations which do no not vend Muni FastPasses?

  9. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    BART Plus is a functional system for riders, but the allocation of funds was not functional. There is no way to track who is riding on what, so what the riders pay for BART Plus is not necessarily given to the systems they ride.

  10. david vartanoff Says:

    NOT SO! Most fare boves can be set up for the driver to record ‘flash’ pass use. Thus any transit agency wishing to tally usage can do so. Of course a REAL electronic system may now be more efficient and accurate, but the low tech system is far cheaper to implement AND requires no interagency standardization .

  11. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Whether it is possible or not is beside the point. The money from BART Plus tickets has never been allocated according to who rides what.

  12. Russell Mondy Says:

    In Atlanta I used a TransCard that for $13 a week allowed unlimited fares on busses and trains. If TransLink can’t do that for us then why should anyone really care? It’s actually cheaper for me to drive to my job in the Mission District from my home in Oakland [ac to bart to sfmuni ~then~ reverse] than it is to use public transit.

  13. K Rudy Says:

    TransLink is pretty much a failure. Unless it also works on BART, there is really little reason to use it. We should also get an option to buy a discounted $48 high value BART ticket for $45 (like the traditional paper tickets). On the other hand, I hear that BART’s EZ Rider is much better. Although BART doesn’t accept commuter checks at this time, I’m still willing to use the EZ Rider card, but certainly after I use up my traditional paper BART tickets that I purchase with my commuter checks.

  14. Don Says:

    BART’s EZ Rider is awesome! My partner has a unique BART card that gives him a discount since he is a flight attendant out of SFO. After I saw how easy it was for him to wave the card, I got the EZ Rider. Even if TransLink isn’t coming to MUNI soon, I wish they would either introduce their own RFID card or a program where monthly passes are automatically charged and sent to you in the mail. Lining up each month gets old.

  15. Paul Marcelin-Sampson Says:

    Bravo to Mike Cunningham for reminding recent TransLink converts of the program’s history. The system you are using today is actually TransLink II.

    TransLink I involved a modified BART ticket that was compatible with BART’s original equipment and with small, on-bus readers. It was a disaster. When the pilot project ended, the County Connection was reportedly spending more on TransLink I equipment maintenance than it was collecting in TransLink I ticket revenue. (If anyone is interested, I will dig up the newspaper story from the mid-1990s.)

    I signed up for the TransLink II pilot project and have been carrying the smart card for several years now. One could say that the TransLink II pilot was broad but not deep: it covered many agencies, but few specific routes. I used my card successfully on Caltrain, VTA, BART, and Golden Gate, when I could.

    I have mixed feelings about TransLink II. On one hand, having a uniform payment medium is convenient. On the other hand, the capital and operating costs are staggering.

    In the end, providing a uniform payment medium does not solve the fare coordination problem. Unless political changes occur by the time TransLink II is fully implemented, a customer will still have to buy separate passes for the different transit systems he uses. Pass entitlements will be stored electronically, on the card, but each pass will still have its own price and terms. Single-ride fares — and the basis for calculating them — will still vary from agency to agency. Amusingly, when the customer pays for regional, multi-agency ride with “e-cash”, he will still be taking advantage of 25-year-old inter-agency agreements. These agreements apply today, but employee awareness is limited and customer awareness has fallen off since MTC took over and “improved” it into . The transfer agreement pages were among the most useful pages on the old site, and they have not been carried forward.

    TransLink II has started and really can’t be stopped now. With the right political changes it could someday be quite successful. In the meantime, (a) publishing the inter-agency transfer agreements in one place for customers, (b) educating transit agency employees about the agreements, and (c) forcing all Bay Area agencies to accept Sacagawea dollar coins and charge in even multiples of $1, would make life easier.

    I have no idea what political formula would work in the long-term, given differing local expectations about farebox recovery. Some agencies care about passenger revenue; BART and Vallejo Transit are good examples. One major agency says it cares, but gives away oodles of $10 monthly passes, has lax fare enforcement, and can always draw on new parking fines and fees if transit revenue falls short. And another major agency depends so little on fares that the effect of a “Save the Air” free-fare day is hardly noticeable.

  16. Liz Says:

    Speaking of the old “” site, it was not improved when the MTC took it over. They totally destroyed it and made it difficult to use. The old site was simple and easy to use. When the “new” site came online, it was a shock. I never did care for the new site and I noticed for awhile that agencies were now putting their schedules on their own sites.

  17. Tommy Says:

    We just got our translink cards today! Woohoo! My wife is a Cal student so it’s basically useless for her as she gets free AC Transit rides anyway. I probably won’t load mine up until I BART, Muni, and Caltrain come online so I can do the Albany to Mountain View commute without having to fiddle with three different fare systems.

    One card to rule them all

  18. Stefan Lasiewski Says:

    I received my translink in the mail on Friday as well. I just registered the card, and now need to wait a few days for the card to be activated.

    Ironically, I think I signed up for the ‘beta program’ in 2001, 4 jobs ago, when I still used BART + MUNI to get into work.

    Now, I live and work in Berkeley, and I mostly bike into work. I take AC Transit on occasion. I’ll be a good test subject for the ‘casual user’.

    I look forward to the day when Translink works on BART as well.

  19. Inside Bay Area > The Capricious Commuter > one card to rule them all* Says:

    […] To quote Tommy, who announced this in a comment on my last TransLink entry, Woohoo! My wife is a Cal student so it’s basically useless for her as she gets free AC Transit rides anyway. I probably won’t load mine up until I BART, Muni, and Caltrain come online so I can do the Albany to Mountain View commute without having to fiddle with three different fare systems. […]

  20. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Tommy, I used your “one card” line to start the next TransLink entry. Thanks.

    I have a question for you: You mention Muni as part of your Albany-to-Maountain View commute. Can’t you just take BART to Millbrae and get on Caltrain there?

  21. garden gates Says:

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