A SEPTA Key kiosk outside the Chinatown Station on the Broad-Ridge Spur. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

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SEPTA officials announced last month that they were searching for a new vendor to steward the region’s electronic transit fare system into the future. 

Requirements for the new tech including being flexible, to “allow us to move quicker as we see trends moving, and as we see people adapting to new payment methods,” said agency spokesperson Andrew Busch. 

The deadline for proposals to replace the SEPTA Key system is July 14.  

Conduent, the firm brought on board in 2011 to build the current system, indicated it was interested in bidding on the new one. “We look forward to continuing to support SEPTA as it introduces, in the months to come, additional payment options for travelers,” the company said in a statement.

But that’s far from a sure thing. The transit authority has already been in conversation with about 20 different firms, according to Busch.

Anyone familiar with the lengthy Key rollout will have fingers crossed it doesn’t get mired in the same delays, cost overruns, and obstacles that dogged — and continue to plague — the current electronic fare setup.

As the authority prepares to move beyond it, here’s an abridged timeline of the roller-coaster road to the SEPTA Key. 

2008: SEPTA puts out the call for change with a lengthy infomercial

In November 2008 SEPTA put out the initial request for proposals for an electronic “smart card” fare system that was planned to be the first of its kind in the country.  

As part of that effort, the authority also shared a video detailing the system as it existed at the time, the days of tokens, paper fares, and gender-identifying weekly/monthly passes.

For nostalgics aiming to show the younger folks in your circle a vision of the “good ‘ol days,” here’s the video for you. 

YouTube video

March 2009: The delays begin

The initial deadline for RFPs was in March 2009, but then-revenue and ridership chief John McGee told the press that far too many unanswered questions in the RFP would necessitate a delay to May.

Vendors had sent over 450 queries about the kind of system SEPTA had in mind, per the Inquirer. As you may recall, money markets were also in a tizzy at that time, slowing access to capital for financing. 

At that time, there was a belief that a contract would be rewarded in September 2009, and the total project would cost around $100 million. Those notions were just waiting to be disabused.

Summer 2009: Another delay, and some pretty familiar ideas

A few months later in July SEPTA was explaining why the deadline for RFPs needed to be pushed back again. At the same time they were touting the big plans in mind for what was to be called SEPTA Key. 

Comparing the scope of their plan to other smart card systems in Washington D.C. and Boston, SEPTA floated the potential of an “open loop” system. That’s a system that allows any payment item with RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology to be used at a SEPTA turnstile.

“Riders will be able to use credit cards that have embedded RFID computer chips and cell phones,” read the WHYY News coverage

SEPTA is still working towards that “open loop” system 14 years on, part of new features planned for adoption later this year.

The following month in August, there was another change to the RFP deadline, now past the date when hopeful onlookers thought a contract would be awarded. As opposed to the earlier round of questions, based on the tech SEPTA was seeking, inquiries from firms now revolved around funding. Why? Well …

2009/2010: Act 44 interlude

Act 44, passed by the legislature in 2007, was a plan to keep the Commonwealth’s transportation systems fiscally afloat. By 2009, a key element of the plan — adding tolls to I-80 — had fallen apart. 

The Federal Highway Administration rejected the change and threw a huge wrench in SEPTA’s financial plans.

The authority announced plans to pause or cancel 20 projects worth more than $200 million in 2010, and noted the smart card system was also under threat

May 2010: The fight goes on…with familiar plans

Despite fiscal woes, conversations about a new fare system were revived. A big topic of discussion at this time was using “fare gates” as opposed to turnstiles.

Like the “open loop” system, the gates are another product that’s only recently been reincorporated into SEPTA’s plans over a decade down the road. 

The SEPTA board voted this March to approve a fare gate pilot program located at the 13th Street and 34th Street stations. 

The gates are supposedly set to be installed in early 2024. 

A neon SEPTA sign hanging in a station. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Early 2011: It’s a bird, it’s a plane … no, it’s the PIDC (and wealthy immigrants)

By January 2011, things were looking up for SEPTA’s smart card agenda. Sure, no contract had been awarded nearly two years after the initial deadline, but the money to make it happen was now available to the authority. How?

Through an up to $175 million loan from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, arranged through the Immigrant Investor Welcome Program.

The program essentially offers foreign investors permanent resident visas in exchange for help financing job-creating projects in the country. 

In this case “350 investors have pooled their money together to create about 3,500 jobs — directly and indirectly — from the smart card project over two years,” per WHYY News. 

A couple months later, SEPTA launched an informational webpage for the coming change, which you can peruse here.

Fall 2011: Conduent gets the contract

To fast forward a bit (past other planning sessions and further delays), November 2011 was the moment many had been waiting for. 

That’s when SEPTA awarded an up to $129.5 million contract — higher than the initial budgeted cost of $122 million — to ACS Transport Solutions Group, the Xerox Corp. division that would become Conduent Inc. In those heady days, the hope was that the system could be up and running by the end of 2013. 

Just because awarding the contract had been delayed for over two years didn’t mean that the system needed to be delayed that long, right? 


2012: SEPTA Key comes into view

By October 2012, the system we know today was beginning to emerge. 

Sure, full implementation had been pushed back to 2014, but construction on new terminals was underway, old turnstiles were being removed, things were happening!

The authority still thought debit and credit cards and smartphones could be part of the initial rollout, so certain adjustments hadn’t been made yet, but a burgeoning testing facility was a sign of real progress. 

““Every several years there are these changes that take place,” said ridership chief McGee. “Our system will be able to adapt to that.” 

“This system will have a very long life,” he said. 

2014: Delays galore, plus the system gets a name

We’re just gonna leapfrog over 2013, a period replete with testing and construction needed to make the new fare system possible. 

By summer 2014 — when SEPTA Key was supposed to be available across the entire transit system — officials were making it clear nothing would be finished that calendar year. 

One reason offered was software design, described as “very, very complicated.” 

Another was that McGee, who stewarded the project from its earliest days, had retired from SEPTA and went to join LTK Engineering Services — a consulting firm that, funnily enough, was working with SEPTA on the Key system. 

This was also the year that the name of the new fare system was announced. In fact, Philly Mag deflated any anticipation by running a column on the name well in advance of the official reveal. 

2015: OK, but for real this time

In early 2015, officials — chastened by all the deadlines they had to publicly disavow — were vaguely optimistic about the Key system. PlanPhilly reporters were asking around, but the firmest answer on a launch date they could get was, “sometime in 2015.”

By year’s end, SEPTA had announced the 10th change order on the contract signed with Conduent. The change added nearly $4.8 million to the contract, swelling the total cost from the initial $129.5 million to $140.6 million. 

Changing a contract’s requirements and the coincident payment 10 separate times was detailed by WHYY’s PlanPhilly in December 2015.

“Numerous changes to the project’s specifications before and during the design and implementation suggest that SEPTA was in way over their heads,” the article notes.

A SEPTA Key card. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

2016: Key pilot program begins!

As you may have guessed, dear reader, “sometime in 2015” did not pan out

But after reaching an agreement with Conduent in April 2016 that a launch could take place, the pilot for the Key system did finally unroll in the following weeks. The initial test, undergone with the participation of 10,000 SEPTA riders, kicked off in mid-June

By November, riders could begin to trade in their remaining SEPTA tokens for Key card credits, as the pilot program continued to expand. 

In December a bevy of concerns and questions about the pilot emerged, around various aspects: the user experience, the functionality of digital Travel Wallets, and the many bugs users were still navigating

2017: Subway stations and bus stops get keyed in, riders get keyed out 

In March 2017, SEPTA announced that Key cards would be available at all the El and BSL stations, and at city bus loops. Prior to that, one had to go to SEPTA HQ at 1234 Market or to the 69th Street Transportation Center to get their hands on the still sparse cards. 

A wider release to kiosks systemwide took place later that year after UX issues resulting in riders getting multiple Key cards, were resolved. 

2018: Cost overruns continue, Regional Rail riders still wait

By the time SEPTA okayed the 18th change order for their contract with Conduent in March 2018 — raising the contract price to $159,773,499, a $30 million increase from the original agreement — implementation across Regional Rail was still a ways off. 

Edens Corporation, the firm working on the Regional Rail expansion, had just seen their SEPTA contract change for the 11th time. LTK Engineering Service had also been handed six change orders by that point. 

What was deemed a $100 million project had inflated to $175 million in 2011, and eight years later total costs were sitting at $297.77 million — a 70% cost increase.

The SEPTA Key kiosks at Fairmount Station on the Broad Street Line. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

2019: Regional Rail implementation makes Key transition complete

Oh Happy Day! On May 1, SEPTA Key was expanded to all Regional Rail riders, finally getting the agency to system-wide implementation.

2020: Conduent contract won’t stop growing

In November 2020, SEPTA approved the 24th change order to Conduent’s contract along with a $14.4 million increase. That brought the total cost of that contract alone to $207.7 million. 

About $1.6 million of that 24th revision went towards replacing the handheld transaction devices used by Regional Rail conductors. 

2021: Key 2.0 whispers begin, Conduent contract almost doubles

In June 2021 SEPTA released a Request for Information seeking a firm that could take the fare system into the new age. 

At the time, officials said that updates allowing for the use of debit and credit cards, and mobile device payment should be available “by late 2021 or early 2022.”

A month later, the 25th change order pushed the price of Conduent’s contract north of $208 million — the $400,000 increase went towards “email communication for customers, enhancing security for validators, and voice-response capabilities,” per WHYY News. 

By December 2021, we were onto the 27th change order, which added $29.5 million to Conduent’s contract. For those keeping score, the total cost of that contract — not even the entire Key project! — rose to $238 million, close to doubling the $122 million that was originally budgeted for the contract. 

2023: It’s been a long, strange trip

It’s 2023. 

System wide fare hikes and service cuts loom as federal funds dry up. 

There have been more change orders to Conduent’s contract than years this piece’s author has been alive, with The Inquirer reporting that the firm has been paid $285 million by SEPTA

But now, at least, the RFP for Key 2.0 is out there. And hey, apparently, riders will still be able to use debit and credit cards to board SEPTA later this year. 

Now, we wait and hope that the road to Key 2.0 is smoother than the one taken to reach this point. 

Updated 5 p.m. with a statement from Conduent.

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Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...