Skip to main content

On the same day that an Antares rocket delivering supplies to the International Space Station exploded spectacularly seconds after launch, TransLink revealed further complications in its effort to introduce its Compass Card system to the general public.

Stay with me here. It's not that the delay of a transit pass is anything like a million tonnes of rocket fuel exploding into flames, taking with it vital space-station supplies, not to mention several middle-school science projects.

No, the similarity comes in the messaging. Moments after the Antares went all Michael Bay, Orbital Sciences, the company contracted to launch the thing, tweeted, "There has been a vehicle anomaly."

The widespread introduction of the Compass Card – the new transit payment system – is millions of dollars over budget and at least a year behind schedule.

The news this week is that TransLink was looking at scrapping the "tap-out" requirement on buses.

For those of you not familiar with the tapping terminology, one taps-in when the ride starts – whether on the bus or on SkyTrain – then taps-out when the ride is over. The idea is eventually you'll be charged for the distance you travel rather than the current zone system.

Only, it turns out the tap-out function hasn't been going very well on buses. There have been, uh, anomalies. So many of them that TransLink, which is anxious to get the Compass Cards into the hands of more people than the current 85,000 test subjects, is suspending the tap-out function for bus riders.

Suspending isn't exactly the way TransLink spokesperson Colleen Brennan puts it, though.

"What we're doing is we are exploring the possibility of doing that as an option that we have in our contract with our supplier on Compass Card. So what we want to do is look at that and see if that is a viable option for us... if it makes sense f our customers," Ms. Brennan told me this week. She prefers the term, "a temporary, interim grace period." I'd call that suspending. She says TransLink is committed to "tap-out" in the longer term.

The problem, of course, is if the tap-out feature is suspended, there's no way of telling how far a rider has travelled and no way to calculate the fare. Presented with this dilemma, Ms. Brennan replied, "That's the other great question. What we're going to have to look at is a simplified fare structure and that's the work that we're beginning right now."

Far from the "durable, reloadable, electronic fare card that works everywhere on transit in Metro Vancouver" promoted on TransLink's website, the introduction of the Compass Card has been a textbook fiasco. But it can't be entirely blamed on TransLink.

Cast your mind back to 2007, when then-transportation minister Kevin Falcon announced an end to the "free rides" and that fare gates were coming. The announcement came despite a report to TransLink that said the cost of installing and operating the turnstile system was many times greater than the amount being lost to fare evasion. But justifying the need for turnstiles was a moving target; safety became the focus – anyone who stepped on to a train without paying was clearly a threat. There was even talk of preventing terrorism. I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure $2.75 is not going to deter a really committed terrorist.

The cost of the system swelled from Mr. Falcon's original estimate of between $80-million and $100-million, to $170-million and beyond. The earlier commitment from the province to the fund the entire cost vanished. And now, well, we are where we are. Some of the fare gates have been collecting dust for three years.

TransLink meantime, presses on. Ms. Brennan says the next phase of the plan will see student U-Passes replaced with Compass Cards, and after that they will be put into the hands of the general public, where it's estimated 800,000 transit riders will adopt the card. She can't say exactly when that will happen. But she continues to defend TransLink's position. "It's not like we bought a system and now we're trying to make it work," she says.

Oh really? That's exactly what it sounds like.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

Interact with The Globe