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TransLink smartcard plan leaves Big Smoke in the dust

Vancouver's plan for a smartcard system for TransLink is something to be admired in Toronto, where efforts to bring in a smartcard are mired in a battle between the provincial government and the local transit commission.

As Toronto politicians and Ontario's Metrolinx agency trade barbs about competing fare card systems, Greater Vancouver's regional transit authority has quietly pressed ahead with an efficient plan to purchase "off-the-shelf" contactless smartcard technology for its entire network of buses and commuter rail lines and the Skytrain.

And here's the zinger: TransLink expects to pay $80-million for the system and have it deployed by 2013. Greater Toronto's homemade Presto system has cost $250-million so far, and the price could still rise.

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In a request for proposals released in early July, TransLink also told potential bidders to ensure their systems can be adapted to so-called "open fare," so riders can pay with their bank or credit cards, said Fred Cummings, the agency's vice-president of engineering and implementation. "People will not be able to access the system without a smartcard." The goal, he added, is to go to a cashless system.

TransLink oversees all of Greater Vancouver's transit agencies as well as its major road network, but it only serves about a third of the riders handled by Ontario's GO Transit and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). Yet the agency managed to avoid the delays and budget problems dogging Metrolinx's Presto card system, as well as the unknowns associated with an as-yet-untested open-fare system, which the TTC is pursuing.

As part of the project, Vancouver is also spending $90-million to install fare gates in its Skytrain stations to reduce revenue losses associated with fare evasion.

Mr. Cummings said the main goal is to build a smartcard that will be in wide use. TransLink hasn't sought out partnerships with financial institutions, as would be the case with the TTC's open-fare proposal.

But, he added, TransLink's U-pass, for college and university students, will function like a smart card, library card and student ID card combined. And riders may eventually be able to use it to buy goods from the retailers inside the stations.

He also said that TransLink asked bidders to use well-established technology that has been "proven worldwide. We didn't want to be the test bed."

The TTC estimates it would cost almost $500-million to implement Presto, a proprietary system developed by Accenture, across its system. In June, the TTC spent $1.3-million to hire a consultant to fast-track a request for proposals for a contactless open-fare system, which would allow riders to pay with bank, credit or gift cards.

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"People want to be able to use their bank cards," said Toronto Mayor David Miller, describing open fare as "state of the art."

"You don't get stuck with one supplier and one technology," which he said is "a recipe for increasing cost."

While New York has an open-fare trial under way, no major American city has actually deployed such a system. (Utah has a small version.) In London, England, riders can sign up for a special Barclays PLC credit card that may be used on the Oyster system, as the city's immensely popular contactless smartcard network is called.

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