For nearly 20 years, Bay Area commuters have been tantalized by the prospect of hopping on BART in Pleasant Hill, jumping off at the Embarcadero station and onto Muni, then transferring to Caltrain and zooming to work in San Jose, all on the same prepaid card.

But TransLink, a regional transit smart card that was proposed about 17 years ago, has lurched along more slowly than a broken-down bus, suffering cost increases and delays. It was supposed to be available on most of the Bay Area's 28 transit systems by 2001; currently, it is only available on AC Transit, Golden Gate buses and ferries and San Francisco's Muni.

The TransLink card has many advantages for Bay Area transit riders, who make about 67.4 million trips per year that involve transfers between different operators out of a total of 496 million estimated trips.

With TransLink, riders can transfer between systems without fumbling for change or an additional card. The money for each individual ride is subtracted from the owner's bank account or credit card, so if you lose your card, you don't lose your money.

Despite the potential benefits, it's been a bumpy road for the smart card, and many wonder whether it will ever become a reality. A ray of hope seemed to appear in late April when transportation officials announced that the card would become available to BART riders in the summer.


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BART's participation is critical to TransLink. The rail system operates in four counties, connecting riders to Caltrain on the peninsula, AC Transit and County Connection in the East Bay and San Francisco's Muni, among others. About 15 percent of BART customers take a different form of transit to get to BART and 17 percent use transit after getting off the train (though the numbers are declining).

But BART doesn't seem to want to jump aboard the TransLink train.

"Last year, BART said TransLink would be in operation on their system on Sept. 25," said AC Transit rider Rebecca Saltzman, of Oakland, "and it didn't happen."

Sure enough, just weeks later, BART director James Fang announced that he was researching using cell phones instead, telling the media, "And when our project hits, I guess it will show TransLink was a disaster."

TransLink was first incarnated in 1993, using about $4 million in grant money, and sputtered to a halt two years later. When next initiated, the costs zoomed to about $26 million to buy the equipment and maintain it, then to an estimated $133 million to cover all the Bay Area's transit districts.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., riders have been merrily whipping out their SmarTrip cards and hopping every transit system in the area since 1999. Similar cards exist in Seattle, Boston, London, Hong Kong and other locations worldwide.

So what's the holdup?

"There are institutional and human capacity barriers to adoption. The institutional barriers are how long it takes for transit agencies to agree with one another on the terms of sharing a smart card," said Genevieve Giuliano, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California who has been researching such systems since the mid-1990s.

"A powerful lead agency can expedite the process, which is the case in Washington, D.C., Giuliano said. "Washington Metro is all one big system, and they only had to fight among each other as to how to split the fares. With multiple agencies, we have very few success stories, even today," she said.

"At issue is this very fragmented transit delivery system we have," said Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's transit planning agency steering the project.

"The Bay Area has 28 transit agencies. Chicago has three, Washington (D.C.) has one, Seattle has seven. There are thousands of fare schedules in the Bay Area and competing demands by every transit district," Rentschler said.

BART has had a checkered history with TransLink since it teamed up with central Contra Costa County's County Connection in 1993 to offer the service. In 1995, BART scrapped the program, saying the magnetic code-reading fare boxes kept breaking down.

Other factors slowed the progress of TransLink. San Diego-based Cubic Corp., a regional electronic fare systems firm that designed BART's fare gates, waged a legal battle with the MTC over the awarding of the TransLink contract to a rival company, ERG Ltd. Cubic filed a complaint in San Francisco Superior Court in 2003 accusing the MTC of not following its own procedural rules by "prematurely" giving ERG $8.1 million for equipment and software.

ERG recently sold a portion of its businesses including TransLink to Cubic, ending the battle.

"It is not uncommon for public agencies to find themselves caught in the middle of a corporate competitive fight," Rentschler said. "Lawsuits are never helpful and often slow things down." Another BART concern was "the float," said Tom Radulovich, a member of BART's board of directors. This is the money that BART and other agencies have in their bank accounts between the time a rider buys a ticket and when the rider uses it up. The funds draw interest and hence are a revenue source.

BART was concerned that it would lose its float with TransLink, with the money instead being held by the MTC, Radulovich said.

A solution was reached. When BART riders pay with a TransLink card, their fares will immediately be electronically transferred into an account designated specifically for BART, known as an "e-purse." BART is the only transit agency that will have such an account.

With these problems resolved, might BART finally put the pedal to the metal with TransLink?

BART spokesman Linton Johnson said BART is testing out TransLink now with a group of customers who use EZRider, the agency's existing smart card. He estimated that the card might be available to all BART riders in six months to a year.

As far as director Fang's remark, "Remember, we have nine directors. His opinion does count, but that's not the sentiment of all on the board. We want to make sure we can provide as many options for people to access BART as possible."

Regarding the delays, Johnson said, "We were never supposed to be the first customer of TransLink. Golden Gate was, then AC Transit, then Muni and then BART.

"TransLink is coming to BART and it's coming to stay," he said.

Or is it?

"Unless they're (BART) forced or unless somebody can offer them a sweet deal, I'm going to say no," Giuliano said.

Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671 or jmara@bayareanewsgroup.com.

TransLink
Proposed pass that would work on any Bay Area bus, train or ferry
  • Web site: www.translink.org
  • First initiated: 1993
    Currently available on AC Transit, Golden Gate buses, Golden Gate ferries and San Francisco's Muni
  • Average weekday boardings, week ending May 8, 2009: 26,975
  • Average weekday boardings, week ending May 9, 2008: 13,600 (not yet fully implemented on Muni)