Ferdinand Risco said he’ll sleep fine Sunday night, but Monday will come early for TARC’s interim executive director as he joins staff at the bus service’s command center to watch the first MyTARC tap-card fares blip online.
After years of delays prompted by technological glitches and concerns customers hadn’t gotten the message, new fareboxes will stop honoring paper tickets and accept only the new cards and cash starting around 4:30 a.m. Monday. A ride will cost $1.50 with the card, $1.75 with cash.
A successful rollout of the roughly $5 million tap-card system would set a foundation for TARC’s management to tackle a slate of persistent challenges as ridership falls and aging buses too often show up late. A rocky start would be a painful setback as the 45-year-old transit service digs into a deep, half-million-dollar review and long-term planning process.
A monthslong training and PR effort culminated late Friday morning as Risco and fellow TARC staff greeted reporters and a trickle of passersby and riders on Broadway between Fourth and Fifth streets. The day before, TARC said that it would provide free service for the three days ahead of the launch to help make sure people could get to the Union Station HQ or the Nia Center to get cards.
“The big hurdle is getting the word out,” Risco said on the sidelines of the event. “We’ve been training our operators for months; we’ve been informing our customers for months: Monday is the launch.”
Most important was for people to understand that free transfers were only available with the new card, said Risco, who will have been with TARC for two years in February.
“We have been in earnest for two years, first to make sure the technology was sound, that the hardware and software were prepared,” he said, adding TARC delayed the implementation again to make sure riders knew about the change. “We just did not feel we had properly informed our customers.”
Risco and others said no one would be left stranded Monday. But the new fareboxes physically won’t accept paper tickets, which TARC will exchange for MyTARC fare credit until the end of March. Conflict-resolution techniques were included in drivers’ preparation for the card introduction.
“That was part of the farebox training,” said a driver, Duncan Hill, who brought Risco and his team to the event. Hill, who said he’s driven for TARC for about five years, was relaxed about the change: “The kinks have to be worked out of anything when you change after doing something for so long.”
Despite the PR assault, some people most dependent on TARC said certain details weren’t clear, such as whether cards could only be recharged online. (It can be done on the buses, all 225 of which now have Wi-Fi, Risco said.) And figuring out such a big change is just one more task to add to the daily struggles of work and long commutes for TARC’s core ridership.
“I guess I’m going to have to get myself prepared,” said Beverly White as she waited to get a free MyTARC card on Friday. She said the commute to her work off Blankenbaker Parkway can take three buses and two hours, one-way. “That’s why I’m trying to get my pass now, because I ride the bus to work every day.”
TARC inadvertently reminded people waiting for Friday’s event about one its deeper challenges, and a reason the MyCARD is critical to its larger success: The bus delivering TARC’s bosses to the event, scheduled to start at 11 a.m., was nine minutes late.
TARC’s on-time performance slipped in 2018 to 81.3 percent from 83.3 percent the previous year, a TARC spokesman said in an email. This falls short of the 85 percent on-time-performance goal in TARC’s 2019 fiscal-year budget. Demands for extended service and maintaining an aging fleet are behind the delays, said the spokesman, Jeremy Priddy. Some of TARC’s buses have three-quarters of a million miles or more on their odometers.
The spokesman said the MyTARC system should help tighten up service, by making for quicker boardings and by providing a lot more data to help TARC better locate stops and design routes.
“It’s going to keep getting better,” Priddy said Friday. Once data starts streaming in from the tap-card system, “our hope is to make the overall system more efficient so we know exactly where to put stops, based on traffic and people getting on and getting off.”