The Vancouver region's transit authority says its Compass smart-card system will be fully deployed by this November, launching the troubled $194-million project after years of delays that angered the public and fuelled opposition to a failed plebiscite on transportation funding.
Cathy McLay, chief financial officer for TransLink and acting CEO for the organization as of next week, announced the timetable Thursday during a news conference at the transit system's Waterfront Station.
Ms. McLay noted Compass will launch after a phased rollout that has seen the system used by various users over its development.
"We have tested every part of the system," Ms. McLay said. "As we have brought in each one of the phases, we have learned from them. We have taken focus groups, studied the information and we have done course adjustments."
She said there will be a transition period of an undetermined length after November, during which paper passes and other payment options for fares will still be accepted as Compass is phased in – a process that will see the Vancouver region join other municipalities around the world using smart cards, such as London.
After about six years of development, Compass cards were supposed to be fully launched in 2013 but have been delayed since then by varied technical glitches. In the meantime, fare gates have been installed in SkyTrain stations that were supposed to work with the new system.
Although initially budgeted at $171-million, the Compass program is now pegged at a cost of $194-million.
Ms. McLay said the figure remains the target budget for the program, which would see passengers tap cards on scanners as they board transit vehicles to register payment.
TransLink's apparent inability to get the long-awaited Compass card project up and running, repeatedly missing projected launch dates and increasing the project's budget by more than $20-million, undermined public confidence in the agency and was frequently cited by the No side during a plebiscite campaign earlier this year.
The plebiscite asked voters to approve a sales tax increase of 0.5 percentage points to pay for new transit and transportation infrastructure.
Voters rejected the proposal despite a Yes campaign by regional mayors, business leaders, unions, students, environmentalists and even some emergency services workers and police.
Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University's city program, said the rollout is a victory for TransLink.
"For the average user, it's great having just one card," said Mr. Price, who has tested a prototype version of the service. "It's the 21st century. The idea that you would stick with coins and pieces of paper is very 20th century."
He said transit smart cards have been problematic wherever implemented, because they are based on complicated technology that must be in sync with the particular regional transit system where it is used.
"As someone said: 'It's not rocket science. It's way more complicated.'"
Jordan Bateman, B.C. representative of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the most prominent advocate for the transit plebiscite No side, said it was great to see Compass working, though TransLink has previously failed to follow through on promises related to the smart card.
"It's a shame that Translink spent so many millions of dollars and so many months trying to get the tap out to work. Their stubbornness cost taxpayers a lot of time and money.
TransLink is expecting that traditional options for paying for transit will exist for quite some time, but Compass will be available to transit customers who are interested in the option. Eventually, however, Compass is supposed to replace all the other varied options for paying for transit.
The Compass card would allow passengers to input funding for transit fares, replacing the need for tickets and paper monthly passes. Customers would have online accounts so they could transition the funds on a lost card to a new plastic card.
TransLink is also suggesting the cards would allow them to collect more timely data on the use of the system.
On Thursday, TransLink said vending machines selling Compass cards will be activated at SkyTrain stations and SeaBus terminals starting this month and, by November, the cards will be available at retail outlets, customer-service centres and by ordering them online or by phone.