Clipper card users dinged with excess charges due to error 

Last month, Joseph DeBorba went to the add-fare machine at the temporary Transbay Transit Center, hoping to put $100 on his Clipper card.

DeBorba’s first attempt at the reload failed. As did his second and third attempts. Finally, the next day, on his fourth try, DeBorba was able to put $100 on his card.

It was only a few days after that when he realized that $400 had been taken out of his bank account — yet he only had loaded $100 worth of travel fare on his card.

“It wasn’t catastrophic for me, but $300 is still $300,” said DeBorba, who uses the transit card to travel from Alameda to San Francisco each day. “It was certainly a pain to deal with.”

DeBorba wasn’t the only passenger whose pockets were a little lighter as a result of Clipper Card charge errors.

During a five-day period, from February 7–11, as many as 150 riders were overbilled on their Clipper cards to the tune of $14,650 collectively — and the organization in charge of administering the regional transit fare still isn’t sure what went wrong.

On average, the glitch cost the overcharged Clipper card users an extra $97.68.

John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages the Clipper card, said all of the customers have been reimbursed, but he didn’t know how long it took for everyone to get their money back. DeBorba said it took about three weeks for him to get his money credited back to his bank account.

Goodwin said a problem of an “unknown origin” caused a communication breakdown between the MTC’s add-value machines and the agency’s computer system at Fifth Third Bank, the main processing center for the Clipper card.

Overall, 350 transactions recorded from 150 unique debit cards were affected by the glitch, and 19 of the system’s 55 add-value machines reported problems.

Greg Dewar, a transit activist who writes the blog the N-Judah Chronicles, said this is not the first complaint he has heard about fare-loading problems with the Clipper Card. The overcharges can trigger major complications for passengers, he said, such as temporarily depleted bank accounts and over-draft fines — costs not likely to be reimbursed by the MTC.

He added that the ongoing problems with Clipper are troubling.

“With all the money and time that the MTC has spent on this thing, you’d think they could avoid these types of problems,” Dewar said. “This just undermines the whole process of getting people to use the card.”

Accidental overcharge

$14,650.25: Amount overbilled to Clipper card users from Feb. 7-11
350: Total transactions that had errors during that time
150: Unique cardholders affected by the errors
$97.68: Average overcharge billed to users
19: Add-value machines that experience malfunctions
55: Total add-value machines in Clipper card system

Source: MTC


Clipper card chaos

August 2010: About 6,000 passengers who signed up to use the Clipper card through the Wage Works program — which provides transit fares with pre-tax benefits — find that no money has been added to their account. The MTC attributes the problem to a “technical glitch.”

September 2010: Muni’s new $30 million fare gates, designed to integrate the Clipper card into its transit system, are found to have an error in them that allows passengers to enter for free. The fare gates open with a simple wave of the hand over a motion sensor.

November 2010: Local media reports on a feature of the Clipper system that allows card users to “go negative” — meaning they can take trips for the bare-minimum loading value of $2. For instance, a $10.90 BART trip from Pittsburg/Bay Point to SFO could be completed for $2, with the negative value being absorbed by regional transit agencies.

February 2011: 150 Clipper card users are charged over $14,500 in excess fares due to a problem with the system’s main processing center. The riders are all paid back, but the reimbursements take weeks to come through.

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Will Reisman

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