In August, SEPTA announced its plan to begin replacing its current fare, tokens, with electronic payment kiosks and plastic cards. This plan has raised potential issues for nonprofits who give out tokens as part of their services.
“We give tokens to people for getting to key appointments, like doctors and clinics,” said Rachel Falkove, the executive director of the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network in East Mount Airy, which helps homeless families access support and services.
“We give them tokens so they can go to the welfare office, so they can discuss their benefits,” she said. “If they can’t afford to get there, they lose their food stamps. There are many factors relating to transportation that can really set a family back.”
Because nonprofits do not distribute cash for bus, subway and Regional Rail fares, tokens are their go-to for helping people get around the city.
While transportation isn’t seen as a basic need, it is essential for people to get around the city in order to help achieve upward mobility, added Falkove, a 1972 master’s of urban studies alumna.
“For the most part, not having tokens is going to be a challenge for nonprofits who give out tokens to students for transportation, and also for the students themselves,” said Carrie Kitchen-Santiago, executive director of the Community Learning Center, an adult literacy nonprofit on Broad Street near Lehigh Avenue.
Tokens will be replaced by SEPTA Keys, which are cards with electronic chips that can be scanned at turnstiles and reloaded with cash or credit cards. Once tokens are phased out, SEPTA will not provide an option for paying for rides that doesn’t involve a credit card, debit card or cash payment.
“That will be difficult,” Falkove said. “Agencies can’t give out cash, but they can give out rides. I’m hoping that it’s an issue that SEPTA and affected agencies are going to be able to solve. We’re going to have to get very creative and remember that we have a lot of people who don’t have cash to buy electronic cards.”
SEPTA first attempted an electronic payment system in 2007, and later awarded a $130 million contract to fund the switch. But the switch was delayed several times. Because the transition is not complete, as well as SEPTA’s lack of resources for nonprofits, many organizations have not yet adapted to the change.
“I am familiar with the system that SEPTA is proposing,” Falkove said. “I believe it is similar to the ones in [Washington D.C.] and in [New York], which seems to work well in both places. The problem is that I don’t know what the nonprofits in those cities use to assist people with transportation help.”
According to the Community Transportation Association of America, which documents low-income options for public transportation, New Jersey Transit sells reduced-fare passes to social service organizations that help lower-income people commute.
The change to SEPTA Key “has been so long in coming, that we have really put it out of our minds,” said Sister Connie Trainor, the executive director of the Sisters of Saint Joseph Welcome Center in the Kensington area, which helps immigrants acclimate to moving to the United States. “And because the whole change-over sounds rather complicated, we just haven’t dealt with it yet.”
“We’re still in the planning stages,” Falkove said. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out but, until we see what kind of system they’re envisioning, I know it’s going to be hard to make a plan.”
“It’s hard to know [what to expect] because SEPTA’s just not communicating what’s going on,” Kitchen-Santiago said. “Our plans all depend on what they’re implementing and how much time we have before they phase it in.”
Andrew Busch, a spokesperson for SEPTA, said it will take a while for the tokens to be completely phased out and that there is no set date for when tokens will stop being sold.
“We’re working with organizations and businesses that buy tokens in bulk for their people to use,” he said. “We want to figure out a way to provide the information so they can continue to do the same service they do today.”
Busch said the transition would be a very gradual process because SEPTA “doesn’t want to leave anyone behind.”
“I’m sensing that we’ll have some wiggle room,” Falkove said. “When the new system comes out, then we can react and ask how we can make this work.”
Amanda Lien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @amandajlien.
Julie Christie contributed reporting.