Fare policy≠fare collection equipment

There’s an unfortunate misconception shared by many (particularly those not well-versed in the innards of transit agencies) that the equipment you use to collect fares has some bearing on what type of fare you charge, or what types of passes you offer, etc. These are actually two entirely distinct issues. Fare policy is a political issue, ultimately addressed by political bodies like the WMATA Board of Directors or the MTA Board. On the other hand, the technical details of fare collection are addressed by technical staff. They do not set fare policy of their own accord, but rather implement the fare structure adopted by the agency, using whatever fare collection equipment the agency procures.

As a result, deploying a new fare collection system does not automatically lead to changes in fare policy; conversely, fare changes need not result in equipment changes (unless an agency is saddled with a legacy AFC system which cannot accomodate those changes). Regrettably, even those who should know better seem to be confused by the distinction, such as in this quote from Lisa Farbstein in a Washington Examiner article on the Smart Passes proposal:

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email that the agency is already seeking proposals to modify its electronic payment program. “We do not want to prejudge any one technology while we are currently in this competitive process,” she said.

The problem with that statement is that Smart Passes aren’t a technology; they’re an aspect of fare policy, and they can be implemented using whatever fare collection technology the agency chooses, assuming it’s sufficiently versatile.

Conversely, individuals looking for changes to fare policy should not address those concerns to staff members who are charged with the implementation of fare policy; instead, they should address their concerns to the individuals who set that fare policy (in this case, the WMATA Board of Directors). I mention this because there’s a special meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council scheduled for tonight, on the subject of WMATA’s New Electronic Payments Program. I certainly hope that individuals do not get the impression that the meeting is going to be a referendum on fares, because that will be unproductive. Price capping, smart passes, and other issues of fare policy must be left to the Board to be decided—what is important at this stage is to ensure that any future fare collection system is versatile enough to implement whatever fare policy the Board may enact. If individuals think that Metrorail or Metrobus fares are too high, or should be changed in some other way, then that’s valuable feedback that should be shared with the RAC or the Board, but it has nothing to do with the New Electronic Payments Program. Moreover, those types of issues are not ones that the staff presenting at tonight’s meeting will be able to respond to or act upon. On the other hand, issues like how the transition from the existing legacy AFC system will be managed, or how unbanked riders will be accommodated (among many issues with the NEPP), are ideal fodder for this evening’s discussion.

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