Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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Despite reports to the contrary, the SEPTA token is not dead. Not yet, anyway — but the true finale for the transit fare coinage is coming soon.

Roughly one year after the transit authority quit selling them in favor of the Key electronic payment method, there are 130 local nonprofit agencies still holding tight to their tokens, providing them regularly to their low-income clients. Roughly a quarter of SEPTA’s total charity partnerships are still using them.

Soon, this will no longer be an option. April 15 is the hard deadline for associates to move on, switching from the token to SEPTA’s newer Partner Program.

Most agencies have already made the switch — and they report pretty positive feedback — while others intend to clutch their tokens until the very end.

Discounted transfers make the switch easier

When Rachel Falkove first transitioned her organization over to the Partner Program, it didn’t go over well. For one thing, the agency was forced to purchase two-ride passes for $4 each — with no alternative for a discounted transfer.

“Taking three or four buses to get from point A to point B, as many of our clients do, ended up costing the agencies trying to help them,” said Falkove, executive director of the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network. A trip with three transfers had once cost her $5 — but after switching to the Partner Program, it cost her $8.

However, when she complained about this to SEPTA, the agency was super responsive. Right away, she said, they offered her the option to buy passes with transfers, plus weekly and monthly passes.

The official options now include purchase of a single-transit trip card; a single transit trip plus transfer and the original two-trip and full-day passes.

“I think that they have tried hard to listen to providers,” Falkove said. “It’s much better than it was for the first few months of the new system.”

Credit: Courtesy SEPTA

At 75 percent recruitment

The new system was unveiled in July 2018, three months after SEPTA stopped selling tokens to the general public. It was a response to the red flag thrown up by members of the city’s nonprofit community, who provide their clients with tokens to access public transportation and reach employment opportunities, doctor’s appointments and other faraway services.

The Key, agencies insisted, would not get the job done. Modern as it was for most Philadelphians, it presented new problems for nonprofits that had never existed with tokens: How would providers refill the cards? And how would they get them back if their clients discontinued receiving services?

So the public transportation agency piloted a solution. Its Partner Program would provide disposable two-trip and full-day passes. The passes are available at the same cost as bulk tokens, and once clients use them, they can be thrown away.

Upon launch, 135 nonprofits signed up. And in the nine months since, another 250 agencies have enrolled. That brings the program up to about 75 percent recruitment — leaving 130 left.

A rendering of the disposable Partner Program cards Credit: SEPTA handout

Shawne Hunter, a benefits counselor at Impact Services Corporation, remains apprehensive. Overwhelmed as she is with the regular task of meeting her clients’ day-to-day needs, it’s hard for her to coordinate the transition away from the token.

“I just dread when they change the process,” she said. “When you’re dealing with the public and the population we deal with, tokens are just so much simpler.”

As far as Hunter is concerned, it’d be better if SEPTA gave up on the plan entirely and switched back to tokens for its nonprofit agencies.

Meanwhile, Falkove is focused on the overarching problem. “The cost of a ride just keeps getting more and more out of reach for the quarter of our city living at or below the poverty line,” she said. “We have to do better and stop driving our poorest citizens to social service agencies for help.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...