SEPTA Key Allegedly Maybe Possibly Running By New Year

What to expect from SEPTA's new payment technology — including the possibility for mobile payment and debit features — and when to expect it.


SEPTA bus | Jeff Fusco

SEPTA is closing in on launching its smart card fare payment system SEPTA Key, and maybe for real this time. Officials working on the project are now projecting a soft rollout around the New Year.

Project manager Kevin O’Brien said that field tests are continuing over the next couple weeks, which will determine whether or not the e-payment system will be ready by then.

Okay, early in the new calendar year. Cool. Maybe we can stick it out fumbling with tokens for a little while longer. So what’s taken so long?

“This is really a soft rollout,” O’Brien said. “It’s a very complex system, especially to develop on the backend.”

Senior citizens have been testing the mode of payment since earlier this year and now some employees are using it in their travels, but O’Brien said more testing is in order.

Let’s just hope that it’s for real this time and not more false hope, which Philly straphangers have been feeling since a division of Xerox got the $130 million contract in 2011.

O’Brien said the biggest obstacle is assuring the machines will still work and allow entry in the event of a network outage.

The project team worked through the weeks leading up to the papal visit, even though the agency’s main focus was elsewhere, O’Brien said.

“The design and software development have taken the longest,” O’Brien said. “We’re trying to determine with the developer why that’s taken so long.”

He added that the ability to register a card to an individual, and a backend account-based system, has been another complexity. The option to have anonymous cards will remain, but there will be no recourse if one of them becomes lost or stolen. Tokens will also be phased out after Key launches in favor of single-use passes, similar to New York City’s MetroCards.

By the end of November, the entire bus fleet should have new electronic fare validators, and new equipment should be on the BSL and El stops by the end of December, CBS3 reports.

They’re also working out how you can reload a card. Options like Apple Pay and Android Pay are being looked at, but they’re waiting on an industry-standard mobile payment system to arise. For the time being, riders will be able to reload from SEPTA’s website and eventually the agency’s mobile app.

After the system is introduced, later plans call for the pass to work as a prepaid debit card bearing the MasterCard logo that could be used wherever debit is accepted, although O’Brien did not think that would be implemented until later in 2016.

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