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Capital Metro to link transit trips with personal payment accounts

Tuesday, July 21, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority ticket-based fare system is due for an upgrade. Currently it lacks the flexibility to offer benefits like fare capping while encouraging more points of contact between customers and bus operators than contactless account-based ticketing can provide.

Even before Covid-19 highlighted the public health risks of ticket payments, Capital Metro planned to overhaul its fare collection for greater efficiency and equity as the city prepares to adopt its $10 billion mass transit plan in November. Having considered its options, the agency has decided to improve upon the digital payment platform in its mobile app rather than build an account-based program from the ground up.

In a unanimous vote Monday, the board of directors approved a roughly $6 million contract with Bytemark – the company behind the existing digital ticket validation software – to rebuild the digital payment software around personal accounts rather than purchased tickets.

Account-based ticketing allows customers the option of paying for transit trips upfront by adding money to a customer account or charging the trip to a bank card.

“In the future,” Chief Financial Officer Reinet Marneweck explained, “your phone or your smart card will identify your account and through the account-based backing system, it will determine if you have prepaid or whether you need to be charged.”

In order to build an account-based ticketing program from scratch, Capital Metro would have to pull together various technological components from several companies, a process Marneweck said would likely cost “many multiples” more than the price of the upgrades with Bytemark.

“There is no single vendor that has a completely rolled-out, fully integrated, account-based fare system for an agency of our current size that is also scaleable,” Marneweck said. “Building a system from scratch has some pros and cons, and we examined these extensively before determining that our best alternative was to leverage the investments we’ve already made and upgrade the Bytemark fare system we already have in place.”

The first phase of the upgrade will launch this winter with a pilot program that will enable customers without a bank card to add cash to their Capital Metro app digital wallets and validate their trips at one of the contactless onboard validators currently being installed on every bus at each door. The pilot will also kick off Capital Metro’s first effort at fare capping, making sure customers never spend more on individual transit trips than it would cost them to purchase a daily, weekly or monthly pass.

“This provides discounts to customers who are not able to buy a period pass upfront, but can earn it as they ride,” Marneweck said.

The second, third and fourth phases will launch late next year and will offer full account-based ticketing. Customers will be able to pay for trips by tapping or scanning a smart transit card, bank card or virtual mobile wallet at an onboard validator.

Customers without a bank account or card will also be able to load smart cards with cash at participating retail stores to minimize contact on buses. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Commissioner Jeff Travillion both noted the need to ensure that cash payment is always preserved as an option for customers who may have difficulty obtaining a bank account.

“I think that for the direction technology is taking us, this is an excellent process,” Travillion said. “I just want us to make sure that we regularly inquire about how we can make it easy for people who are unbanked, because that is the reality for a number of people in our community.”

Although Capital Metro aims to minimize use of cash payments on transit vehicles, Marneweck said cash should always remain an option but that customers will be encouraged to use cash to add money to their accounts rather than pay with cash at the fare box.

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