Universal transit pass trial hits snag 

A second trial run for the long-awaited TransLink program — expected to allow Bay Area transit riders to eventually use one card for all of the region’s public transportation systems by 2010 — has been stalled as a result of problems with the system experienced by AC Transit.

In November, AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit and Ferry announced that they were prepared to take the next step in the multi-year, regional rollout of the TransLink program and were sending out hundreds of the free "smart cards" to passengers willing to test the program in advance of an official launch in 2007.

E-mails went out that month to recruit riders; within a 24-hour period, AC Transit received approximately 800 responses, according to the agency’s spokesman, Clarence Johnson.

Although Golden Gate Transit quickly filled its requests for TransLink cards, AC Transit didn’t follow up with its riders until Jan. 3, when it sent out an e-mail announcing it had discovered system problems "on a larger-than-acceptable proportion of our bus fleet."

According to Johnson, a number of AC Transit employees who had already been given cards reported having problems with the TransLink system, such as cards not being read.

Then, the transit agency began spot-checking buses. It is not yet known if the problem is with the system’s hardware or software, Johnson said.

"We noticed a failure in some of the devices on our buses and we didn’t want to send out our TransLink cards en masse until we were able to iron out those problems," Johnson said, adding that the agency hoped to get back on track with the trial in several weeks.

No significant problems have occurred with the same machines installed on Golden Gate Transit buses and ferries, according to Mary Currie, the public transit agency’s spokeswoman. "In short, it’s going really well," Currie said.

The trial was expected to run through January, but problems with AC Transit will likely push the formal launch of the TransLink program — which is slated to cost $150 million to fully implement — until this spring, said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency coordinating the regional transit program.

Although the TransLink equipment is the same for both agencies, the payment systems are different, noted Goodwin. Golden Gate bus riders have to tag their card twice — upon boarding the bus and when getting off — because fare is calculated by trip distance.

Nonetheless, based on Golden Gate’s positive experience with the TransLink system, Goodwin said there was optimism that AC Transit’s problems only needed " a quick fix, since it’s the same equipment."

Nearly five years ago, TransLink was given its first trial run, through a six-month pilot program involving nearly 5,000 participants who were able to use the universal pass on select routes for six different transit agencies: AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, Muni and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

To use TransLink, riders are provided with a plastic card embedded with a computer chip loaded with a dollar value, a number of specific rides or a monthly pass for a specific agency. When waved in front of a TransLink card reader, located within transit vehicles and stations, the fare is deducted from the card’s balance. More value can be added through machines located at transit stations and ticket offices, by going online or through automatic transfer.

Agency seeks more testers for bus line

Golden Gate Transit is looking for 200 more bus passengers willing to test the agency’s TransLink system.

Since November, the transit agency — which operates both buses and ferries — has been testing the TransLink system and is seeing about 1,200 transactions a day on its ferries and approximately 600 uses per day on its buses, agency spokeswoman Mary Currie said.

"We want to ramp it up on the bus side," Currie said. "It’s been going really well. Now we want to have more transactions a day, so we really know things are working."

More information on the TransLink test is available online at www.goldengate.org/translink.

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