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TTC eyes move to 21st-century fare system

Both ‘Presto’ smart cards and an alternative credit-card-based system would do away with tickets, tokens and turnstiles

By Anna Mehler Paperney

The Toronto Transit Commission is looking to give its decades-old turnstiles a 21st-century makeover - one that will do away with tokens and, ideally, make the antiquated system more sleek, convenient and user-friendly.

What’s not clear yet is how, exactly, this will happen.

Ontario’s Metrolinx is in the midst of rolling out a Presto fare card system: The card has been set up in pilot projects at several GO transit stations and Metrolinx hopes to make it the transit pass of choice across the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. But the TTC has put several conditions in place in exchange for its agreement to adopt the Presto card - among them, that the province assist in funding an estimated $400-million rollout, and ensure the system leaves the TTC the option of implementing an open-payment system that would let riders pay their fares with the tap of a credit card.

The two men behind the Presto and open-payment options were selling their systems yesterday: Ernie Wallace, executive director for Presto, to Toronto’s Board of Trade; and Paul Korczak, who helped bring an open-payment system to New York City, to a transit commission crowd. They spoke to the Globe and Mail in interviews.


What is it?

A smart-card, electronic payment system.

How does it work?

Load it with money - online, for example - tap it at the turnstile and go.

“This is not a revolutionary idea,” said Presto Card’s Mr. Wallace.

“Every major urban area in the world has moved that way.”

Where is it?

Variations on the system have been put in place across North America and Europe.

In London, it’s the Oyster; in Boston, the Charlie card.

What’s it doing here?

Metrolinx has been rolling out the Presto card system in increments starting in December - right now, the turnstiles are at GO stations in Bronte, Oakville and Union Station, Mr. Wallace said, adding that it has been “highly successful” so far. Coming up are 12 TTC stations.

What does it cost?

So far, Mr. Wallace said, Metrolinx has spent around $140-million to set up the Presto systems across the GO network and select TTC spots.

But to put all of Toronto’s public transit on the system would take more than $400-million, estimates a TTC report from November, 2009.

And given the TTC’s capital funding shortfall, councillor Adam Giambrone says, that money should come from the province.

What’s next?

What Mr. Wallace would like to see is a Presto system across Ontario: You use it to get on light rail from Ottawa to Toronto, and then across the bus and subway systems in each city.

“It’s designed to be a provincial system. So people, whether it’s Ottawa or St. Catharines or Kingston, can use it.”

But that would take a while: It will take until March of 2011 for Metrolinx to put the Presto card in place across the GO system alone.

Open Payment

What is it?

A credit-card-based payment system - like paying for gas, but no swiping.

Your Visa or Mastercard becomes your transit pass, token or transfer.

How does it work?

“It’s just like shopping,” said Mr. Korczak, former chair of the Transportation Council of the Smart Card Alliance.

Tap your credit card at a turnstile to pay a single fare.

Or, buy a pass online, where your credit card becomes both your method of payment and the pass you use to get onto the subway, bus or streetcar every morning.

Where is it?

New York City is in the process of rolling out an open payment system.

Chicago and Washington, DC, are also looking at it “very seriously.”

What’s it doing here?

Nothing, yet. But TTC chair Adam Giambrone is adamant that whatever new system Toronto’s transit gets, the option of open- payment remains.

What does it cost?

Neither Mr. Korczak nor Mr. Giambrone would put a dollar estimate on the cost of putting in open-payment turnstiles across the TTC system.

But Mr. Giambrone said it would cost less than the Presto system simply because it requires less “back office” setup.

What’s next?

Mr. Giambrone wants to see open-payment capabilities at turnstiles across the transit system - and if it were up to him, riding would be as simple as tapping your credit card.

As it is, open payment will probably factor into the province’s Presto rollout in some form.