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MTS’s Old Board Is Rushing to Adopt a New Fare Payment System

An MTS bus makes its way through downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The Metropolitan Transit System is scheduled Thursday to decide whether to switch its outdated fare payment system to one on par with those used by transit systems around the world.

If the 10-year, $37 million contract is approved, it would represent a major decision being made in the board’s last meeting of the year, just weeks before as much of a third of its board members will be replaced because they lost elections or were termed out of office. It would also mean multiple board members who greenlight the decision will be out of office as the agency implements the new system.

Last week, the agency’s executive committee moved the contract approval forward with four committee members present, only two of whom will still hold elected office in a matter of weeks.

Georgette Gomez, MTS’s board chair, did not immediately answer questions on why the deal needed to go forward now, when new board members will take their seats next year. MTS staff said it was a policy decision that was not appropriate for staff to answer.

One possible explanation is that it was this board that set up the bidding process that led to this decision, and its members have been briefed on the details of the selection along the way.

The winning bid for a new system came from INIT, a German company that runs Portland, Oregon’s fare collection system, among others. The new MTS system is modeled on the one in place in Portland, which MTS leaders fell in love with when they traveled there to use it as part of the selection process.

Switching to INIT, though, means MTS will be ending its relationship with its current vendor, Cubic, the San Diego-based company that employs about 1,400 people locally and has contracts for fare collection in London, Shanghai, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., among others.

Cubic competed for the new contract, but its bid scored considerably worse than INIT’s, in part because of cost. Cubic estimated it would cost $56 million to provide MTS’s desired system over 10 years, compared with INIT’s winning bid of $39 million.

Mark Cafferty, head of the San Diego Economic Development Corporation, said Cubic has been instrumental in putting San Diego economic leaders in front of investment opportunities abroad, because it was a local company that already had significant ties in cities like Vancouver and Sydney because of its transit contracts.

“Being the hometown of Cubic projects a lot of strength,” he said. “It would be great if the innovation we take so much pride in here about being behind the way the world moves, would be the same technology we can support back home.”

But MTS’s selection process does not allow for that economic development argument to come into play, MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said.

“We’re using federal dollars, and federal procurement rules prohibit any geographic bias being included in a selection criteria,” he said.

There had also been some concern that changing vendors would mean MTS no longer shared a fare collection system with the North County Transit District, potentially forcing someone who takes the Coaster downtown and finishes their trip on the trolley to juggle multiple payment cards.

But that seems not to be the case.

Schupp said MTS built its procurement process and the new contract so that NCTD could easily piggyback onto it, allowing the two transit agencies to integrate with the new collection system.

And Matthew Tucker, NCTD’s executive director, said that’s exactly what NCTD intends to do.

“From a big-picture perspective, we’ll be on the same regional fare system, and we’ll integrate on the same timeframe,” he said. “This will happen so that it’s absolutely seamless.”

He said it’s especially fortuitous that Metrolink, the commuter-rail system in Los Angeles that runs trains into Oceanside that share stations with NCTD, earlier this year also selected INIT for a new fare payment system [1]. Tucker said NCTD will coordinate its implementation with Metrolink as well.

MTS started pursuing a new fare payment system in 2014, recognizing the system was nearing the end of its useful life, and accelerated the process in 2016 at the same time that KPBS and the advocacy group Circulate San Diego began criticizing the existing system’s inadequacies [1], which discourage new riders from experimenting with transit.

MTS expects to have new hardware installed and the new system up and running in 2021.