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New train set to roll but without change for riders

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

On Monday, March 22, Capital Metro will finally open its long-awaited, much-discussed, and oft-doubted commuter rail line, Capital MetroRail. The 32-mile Red Line, which was originally scheduled to start serving riders in March 2009, will run from Leander to downtown. Yesterday the Cap Metro Board of Directors Rail Committee met with staff to discuss issues of safety, convenience, and education still facing the transit authority as it attempts to introduce commuter rail to the city.


One issue that may pose a problem in terms of attracting and maintaining ridership concerns how tickets are paid for. In a presentation to the committee, Cap Metro Revenue and Fares Manager Barney Sifuentes explained that the system’s Ticket Vending Machines (TVM) will not dispense change for purchases made in cash. Instead, passengers will receive Electronic Change Cards (ECC), which can then be used to purchase other tickets.


ECCs will be valid and redeemable for 15 days. Sifuentes told the committee that he believes MetroRail will be the only system in the country to issue change cards.


“The idea was try something new here in Austin,” Sifuentes told In Fact Daily. “It was a decision that was made at the onset of this project. A lot of it had to do with the cost of the (change) machines, the cost of replenishing them, the cost of re-circulating change and putting change back into the machines, the trips it would take to go do that, the security involved with that.”


Board Member Norm Chafetz, one of three committee members not on the board when the decision was made to use ECCs, expressed concern that the system might cause confusion and discouragement among riders, already an issue in a city that has never had a train line.


“What if a rider only has a ten dollar bill, buys a ticket, and then has an eight dollar ECC,” he asked, “and he decides he doesn’t want to ride the train again, or doesn’t have an opportunity to, is that passenger stuck?” Pointing out that such a scenario could result in passengers feeling robbed, Chafetz asked about the possibility of a refund system.


Sifuentes said that current procedures don’t allow for a refund. The committee decided they needed to discuss the matter and come up with a way to deal with customers seeking a refund on their ECCs.


“One of the things that my experience has shown with ticket vending machines, with making change and replenishing change machines,” said Interim President/CEO Doug Allen, “is that there are a lot more moving parts. So once we educate the riding public about how to use these (ECCs), and if we can come up with a way to address Mr. Chafetz’s concerns, I think it be a win-win for us because there’s a lot of cost and a lot of time that is needed to deal with change.


“But we have to come up with a way to deal with customers who want to cash their change cards in.”


Sifuentes said he agreed with Allen that the ECC system is ideal, for reasons of efficiency and convenience. “Also, consider that our buses are already designed for exact change only,” he told In Fact Daily. “So the thinking behind it was we already have a public that is pretty much used to paying with exact fare. Plus, unlike our buses, with these machines, you can use a credit card or debit card.”


When asked if Capital Metro would consider putting in change machines if enough customers complained about ECCs, Sifuentes said, “It all depends on what we’re hearing from the public. We’re not going to leave the customer out in the cold. We’re not going to let them lose their money.”


The change issue will be moot, however, for the first week of MetroRail operations, during which time all rides will be free. There will be nine trips in the morning (six southbound and three northbound trips) and 10 trips in the afternoon (six northbound and four southbound trips). The first train will leave Leander Station at 5:25am.


The Red Line received approval to operate from the Federal Railroad Administration on Friday.

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