Dozens of people waited to get MyTARC cards at Union Station on Monday. | Photo by Mark R. Long

TARC said its long-delayed launch of electronic tap cards to replace paper tickets was going smoothly Monday afternoon, with just one quickly fixed technical glitch, though a surprisingly large number of people hadn’t heard about the change or waited until the last minute to buy cards.

An early, unscientific canvassing of drivers and riders on three East-West routes backed up TARC management’s assessment of MyTARC’s first day. Some passengers had been angered to hear that they wouldn’t get free, paper transfers anymore, drivers said. Others were startled to hear their paper tickets wouldn’t be honored, though they were allowed on the bus, with a warning to get a card or expect to pay $1.75 in cash.

“They’re mad because people don’t like change,” said one. The driver added that the new fareboxes were a good thing because they eliminate the hassle and risks of having paper transfers on board.

The only problems the drivers had seen were a technical glitch with cards from charity partners, and some confusion about swiping University of Louisville cards. TARC said the partner-card software issue was quickly fixed, and that there was no technical problem with UofL cards.  

Commuter Amy Jones got her MyTARC card last month. “I think it’ll be good,” said Jones, who works at a nonprofit advocacy group for disabled people. “It’ll make it easier: You won’t have to worry about having tickets or exact change.”

A smooth rollout is critical for TARC, which is embarking on a lengthy, half-million-dollar review and long-term planning process. The tap-card system is expected to speed boardings, improve security and provide data on how riders use TARC that could be used to improve service that has undercut the transit service’s on-time performance target.

“We have to get this right and we have gotten this right,” said Ferdinand Risco, TARC’s interim executive director. “People are fearful of change and when it doesn’t go well it’s an opportunity to point to what’s wrong, instead of the overall project with the farebox, the savings and security.”

TARC Interim Executive Director Ferdinand Risco handed out and explained how to use the new MyTARC tap cards on Friday. | Photo by Mark R. Long

In an interview, Risco said one surprise was the number of people who hadn’t heard about the change.

“With a million social media impressions, months of delays, many interviews, TV appearances, radio … we still found there were people who knew nothing,” Risco said. “We will try more.”

Dozens of people were lined up or waiting with a number ticket at Union Station early Monday afternoon, and patrons said a large crowd had shown up for cards at the Nia Center.

Kenneth Butts, who commutes daily by bus to a catering job, was waiting to buy a card. He said he had simply left it to the last minute, and first heard of the change months ago. “It was all over the TARC, inside the TARC, in advertising, everything.”

He wasn’t alone. Although the cards have been on sale since Dec. 3, Risco said in a tweet late Monday afternoon that 80 percent of the transactions had come in the past 96 hours. He apologized for waits and said TARC was adding staff to handle crowds.

Although cards can now only be purchased online, or in person at Union Station or the Nia Center, Risco said this is the same as it had been with paper tickets. He said his team aimed to find other retail partners to sell the cards. And since the cards can be topped up with cash on board busses, people who don’t have access to bank accounts or the internet won’t miss out on the discount and free transfers, so long as they get a card.

“All we’re doing is moving from paper to electronic,” Risco said. “If you were buying a 10-pass on paper you’d have to come here or the Nia Center to get them. Now, you only have to come once.”

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Mark R. Long
Louisville native Mark Long is glad to be home after 18+ years away in New York and London. He’s putting his writing and editing experience at The Wall Street Journal to work as a freelancer, digging into stories on infrastructure, transportation, urban design and ecology.