Metro Continues to Expand TAP Program. Complaints Still Common

It seems that every time that Streetsblog takes a moment to discuss the Transit Access Pass (TAP) Program, it’s because someone is complaining about it. From its initial rollout, the program to provide fare cards that could be used as monthly passes on Metro and other local carriers, or put simply provide a universal fare card for the Southland and its many transit operators has been under fire.  Given that TAP is finding its way back in the news, now seemed a good time to check back in with the program.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times ran another editorial, its second in six months, blasting the program.

I think we've said enough about the fare gates, but the reality is that in the public's mind TAP and the fare gates will always be linked. Photo: Jim61773/Flickr

Originally, the idea was that people would get TAP cards, and the gates would only open when you held your card up to a reader. But coordinating that system with other regional transit networks, particularly the Metrolink trains, has proven impossible. And there are a host of other problems, such as coming up with paper single-trip passes that can be bought at stations and read at the gates. You can learn more about the mess by reading our August editorial. Back then, MTA officials insisted they’d have many of the bugs worked out by the end of the year.

When I asked Matt Raymond, who is both head of the TAP program and the head of Metro’s communications division, if he had any issues with the Times’ opinion piece, the response was only that you can indeed buy day passes with a TAP card, if you already have a cash purse.

And that’s one of the major rubs people have with the program.  After literally years of implementation, it is still difficult to buy a “cash purse” from Metro so that you can buy single trip or day passes to be loaded on to a TAP card.  Some Metro rail stations have machines where “cash purses” can be bought and there are another half dozen or so municipal operators who make it easy to buy renewable purses, so that a TAP card can function as a sort of transit debit card.

According to Raymond, Metro is working on bringing a “cash purse” system to all corners of the transit agency, as that’s a key part of creating a seamless transit pass for the entire region.  However, as Metro is rolling out the cash purse option, the agency is not properly training its bus drivers how to accept the pass.  A reader, who requested and was granted anonymity for work related reasons, tells the following story.

I have been using the Cash Purse on Metro for a few years and out of the necessity of taking the 439 Express downtown learned how to get the extra Express fare from the Cash Purse.  When I tapped on the 439 fare box,  It asks “ZONE?” then all the driver needs to hit is 1 for a normal fare, 2  for a fare plus zone 1 and 3 for normal fare plus zone 2.  Another poster on the Transit Coalition boards says if the driver presses 5 on their console before you tap then the transaction will work as well.

The problem is Metro is rolling out these cash purse cards and not properly training the drivers how to deal with them. As a rider who knows how the cards should work it is frustrating since I never know if I’m gong to get a driver who knows what they are doing, or who’s willing to work with me to learn or is somewhat belligerent to a passenger who is trying to teach the driver their job.

When I asked Raymond about this issue, he conceded that many drivers aren’t accustomed to working with the TAP cards having daily fares and that while memorandums have gone out on the issue, more work needs to be done.  When asked specifically if it would be part of driver retraining, he replied, “Absolutely.  It already is.”

However, issues with TAP cards working, or not, on Metro buses isn’t confined to Streetsblog readers.  Last week’s “Twitter Tuesday” column at The Source featured many tweets with people complaining about this very issue.  Amusingly, one of the tweets was from Fred Camino, the former Metro Rider writer who now writes the Twitter Tuesday feature at The Source.

So what’s next for the TAP program?  In addition to better training drivers about cash purses and making them more available to the general public, Raymond says that the program designed to transfer over existing Senior Passes to the TAP program has been successful, and now they’re on to converting student passes.  Another long-term problem is getting other agencies to accept the TAP program which has been problematic for a couple of reasons.

Some of them have to do with ego.  For example, Metrolink refuses to go over to Metro’s TAP system because Chief Customer Engagement Officer for Metrolink Robert Turnauckas wants to create his own branded RFID card, which may not be interoperable with Metro, because it is better for the branding of Metrolink.

Another issue, one which Raymond admits has been a problem for Metro as well, is that there isn’t faith amongst agencies in the revenue sharing between agencies.  Remember this comment, by Dan at the Big Blue Bus?

The reason Big Blue Bus and several other municipal operators are not on the TAP program is because there is a problem with the system that does not allow BBB to get paid for the ride if a TAP card is used. We will join TAP if this issue is resolved and in the meantime suggest you use a 13 Ride Pass which gives you 13 rides for the price of 12 or a 30 Day Pass when riding BBB so you don’t have to worry about having change.October 5, 2010 at 12:15 pm
I think most people can agree that for the TAP program to reach its potential, there have to be many transit agencies on board.  Every time an agency signs up for TAP, the pressure on the others only intensifies.  However, for everyone to have confidence in the program, Metro has to have the program work seamlessly on its own buses.  But regardless of the problems with the program, TAP is the best hope to one day have a regional transit card that works on all systems.

For my personal travels, there’s a race between Metro and the Expo Construction Authority.  Can Metro get the TAP program to the point that the Big Blue Bus uses it on its system in time for me to ride their bus to the Expo Line (Phase II) when it opens in my neck of the woods?