Clipper Card System Upgrades Won’t Happen Until 2023

The $194 million plan to upgrade the Bay Area commuter card system is being delayed, and officials are tight-lipped as to why. Some portions of the mobile application will be available in 2020.

by Kevin Fixlet, The Press Democrat / June 28, 2019
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(TNS) — A scheduled upgrade of the Clipper card that allows commuters to ride and transfer between two dozen Bay Area public transit agencies will be delayed up to 2 years, slowing improvements meant to modernize a system with more than 1 million monthly users.

Regional transportation officials approved the $194 million overhaul last year to introduce an account-based mobile phone app so users can deposit money and reload their transit passes on the go. But officials with the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission now say that upgrade won’t be completed until 2023.

An early version of the smartphone application is still expected to debut by the end of 2020, offering users the ability to manage the plastic transit cards, which cost $3, or create a virtual card stored on the phone. But the account-based software to view real-time card values — like checking the total amount on a gift card — still won’t be finalized before the end of 2022.

Three MTC staff members this week could not say what accounted for the hold up. Transit officials have acknowledged the system is antiquated and in need of replacement. Staff members said some parts were always targeted for replacement in 2023.

Cubic Transportation Systems, headquartered in San Diego, is overseeing the system revamp, including the addition of the mobile app for Apple iOS and Android-based phones. It is the sole recipient of the $461 million contract to make the upgrade — including software and hardware replacements — build the app and manage the system for a decade.

“It seems to be way overdue,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who serves as an appointed MTC commissioner, but was uninvolved in the Clipper 2 process. “It seems that (technology) just takes forever to get to a place where it’s up and operating, and by then it’s usually outdated. But there are a lot of jurisdictions out there they have to accommodate, but it’s supposed to provide more ability to be much, much more flexible, which will be a good thing.”

Many of the 22 transit agencies that participate in the Clipper system operate their own mobile apps to offer customers another way to buy tickets. SMART, the North Bay’s 22-month-old SMART commuter rail, has its eTickets app and earlier this month re-upped its expiring contract with the operator for three more years at $57,000 per year as it prepares for the delay.

Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer, told the agency’s board earlier this month the finish date has been a moving target.

“Ask me again tomorrow, I’ll give you a new answer,” she said.

About two-thirds of SMART’s roughly $4 million annual fare revenue comes from customers with a Clipper card, while the rest use SMART’s mobile app. Use of Clipper provides commuters a $1.50 transfer discount among the other transit agencies that is unavailable for one-off purchases on the SMART app.

SMART officials said they would consider porting over to the Clipper app once it is up and running to offer maximum value, including the transfer discount, to riders who currently prefer to pay fares with a smartphone and do not receive the benefit. The contract with the existing eTickets app operator includes a 30-day termination clause if SMART’s board eventually decides to transition.

Each transit agency pays a negotiated fee to MTC to be a Clipper card member, with SMART spending about $72,000 a year for the service, a SMART spokeswoman said. It’s too early to say whether transit operators will have to pay more to access Clipper’s future mobile app, according to an MTC official.

As part of the system overhaul, MTC plans to replace all station and on-board bus Clipper card readers in 2021. Card retail locations will also get updated devices, which will be unnecessary for users who instead reload their plastic or virtual transit cards on the mobile app.

“The vision is to be able to use the Clipper card app, and if you will virtual card, to access non-transit options,” said John Goodwin, a MTC spokesman. “Clipper will be a way to get a short-term bike rental or scooter rental, whatever it is we are using to complete short trips around the Bay Area four years from now. But for now, by the end of 2020, there will be an app customers will be able to use, and it will be useful.”

©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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