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Wonder why the SEPTA key is taking so long? Just ask Chicago

So SEPTA Key is coming! You see those access systems on turnstiles all over the place, from 69th Street Station to the BSL. But the transit agency has pushed back the launch date of its new electronic fare payment system several times. Sound random? Not really — SEPTA doesn’t want Philly’s new payment structure to roll out disastrously … like Chicago’s did.

SEPTA officials have long touted SEPTA Key, the authority’s yet-to-come transit card system, as uniquely Philly and something that wasn’t necessarily based on a transportation payment system from one city or another. They wanted it to be a step up from what’s offered in New York, Washington D.C., and even Boston, which implemented a similar contactless payment system in 2007.

Of the 21st-century transportation payment methods constructed in major U.S. cities, SEPTA admits that Philly’s is most similar to Chicago’s Ventra system. And layering that over the Second City’s existing transit system was kind of a shitshow.

SEPTA Key spokesman Andrew Busch said Philly’s transportation system — while it’s in the process of installing new turnstiles and validators throughout the city — is keeping a close watch on what’s happened in Chicago as the transit authority there continues to play clean-up after initial public disappointment in its new payment system in 2013.

“It’s not us necessarily being critical of Chicago,” Busch said. “But our intention all along was that we know people are anxious to use the system and want to get it rolled out. Our process is focused on making sure that we have everything working the way it should.”

So, yes, SEPTA Key has been delayed over and over again since being conceptualized in 2007. It’s supposed to be available to subway, bus and trolley riders sometime in 2015 and regional rail riders in 2016. But those delays, according to SEPTA, may just be so Philly doesn’t see major bugs.

Riders in the Windy City complained for months after the city’s new payment system “Ventra” was launched in August 2013. The system, like the Key, is a contactless transit card that is account-based, so riders can load money onto their cards in person, over the phone or online. Then, all you have to do is hold your card up to the scanner and, in theory, it would detect it and you’d be let through to get on the train.

But after the transition began in the fall of 2013, some riders who slapped their wallets against the scanners got charged on both their pre-loaded Ventra cards and their personal debit or credit cards that were outfitted with similar tap-and-go technology, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Others complained of problematic validators and scanners that wouldn’t read cards correctly and took multiple taps to actually allow the person through the turnstile, making boarding the train more difficult and time-consuming than it was before Ventra was implemented.

It didn’t help that Chicagoans had a hard time with customer service — average hold times on the phone were at one point over six minutes — and even went so far as to make a kinda hilarious parody Twitter account of the fare payment system.

The CTA didn’t respond to multiple requests for information made by Billy Penn, but it does appear the authority has made some strides in fixing problems that arose after the bumpy 2013 roll-out.

The authority reported last year that average wait times for customer service had decreased, and the CTA is working on the testing phase of a Ventra ticketing app that reportedly should be up and running completely by May or June.

And while SEPTA has admitted it’s taking its time in rolling out the Key so it doesn’t end up fixing huge glitches like Chicago did, they’re quick to point out major differences between the two systems. A key difference is the development of the fare payment systems: in Chicago, Ventra’s implementation was handled by Cubic Transportation Systems, a company that has had its fair share of roll-out problems before.

In Philly, the contract for the $130 million system was awarded to Xerox Corporation’s Transportation Solutions division in 2011. The corporation has handled electronic payment systems for either transportation or parking in Dubai, Venice, Quebec, Los Angeles and Indianapolis.

In addition, SEPTA’s roll-out is a bit more complex. It’s implementing the electronic fare system on the regional rail in the second phase. Chicago’s regional rail equivalent wasn’t originally included in the new payment system contract.

But for now, SEPTA users are looking toward the future when the Key will be installed. It’s looking increasingly like an April launch is out — hopefully we’ll be able to pay for transportation with a credit card by this fall.

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