Understand the issues, strategies and trade-offs that motivate agencies to join in a regional partnership and provide appropriate support.
Experience of seven partner public transportation agencies in the Central Puget Sound region of Washington in setting up a regional fare card program.
Made Public Date


United States

Evaluation of the Central Puget Sound Regional Fare Coordination Project


The Central Puget Sound Regional Fare Coordination (RFC) project involves seven agencies (six transit operators and one ferry system) agreeing on a standard fare card medium, coordinating the associated business and operational processes, centralizing certain activities such as "back office" financial functions required for fare revenue reconciliation between agencies, and managing a contractor that is providing the system installation and support. The goal of the RFC project is to offer public transportation customers in the Puget Sound region a single electronic fare medium – a fare card – that will enable them to travel seamlessly across the region using multiple transportation service providers. Fare integration across agencies was not an objective per se. The Interlocal Agreement that guides this project was signed April 29, 2003. Overall governance of the RFC project is vested in a decision-making Joint Board composed of the "Chief Executive Officer" from each of the partner agencies.

This lesson is based on the experience of the Puget Sound partners in implementing their regional fare card program. Project staff and partner agency representatives were interviewed and data collected primarily during the period from February 2003 through July 2005. The lessons learned that are represented herein reflect the findings from this evaluation and do not necessarily represent Agency conclusions or recommendations.

Lessons Learned

Many transit users in the Puget Sound Region travel long distances, transferring among different transit agencies. A regional fare card offers a travel experience free of the complexity and inconvenience of different fare structures and multiple cash payments. While this alone offers a strong reason to consider installing such a fare card system, the experience of Puget Sound agencies with the RFC project suggests that a much more complex set of considerations, pressures and motivations will influence regional agencies’ decisions on this matter. More detailed insights on this from the Puget Sound experience include the following:

  • Seek support from the state legislature before implementing a regional fare card project.

    State legislatures are in a good position to recognize the region-wide value of a fare card program in addressing travelers' needs for an efficient, cost-effective, seamless public transportation system. In the case of the Puget Sound region, the legislature provided the initial force that pushed the region’s transit agencies as well as the on-going motivation to see it through.

  • By the decade of the 1990s congestion was emerging as a serious problem in the Puget Sound region. The congestion was fueled by economic and population growth, a freeway system constrained by local geography and land use, and an increasing level of automobile use, especially single occupancy vehicles. People were traveling more and farther, and travel times were increasing. The Washington State legislature felt that more should be done to develop the regional public transportation system and offer an attractive transit alternative. Early on, it encouraged King County Metro and other transit agencies to work together to address congestion and mobility problems. The perception was that these agencies were not meeting traveler’s needs because they had poorly integrated policies and products and were not taking advantage of new technology.
  • Look to the larger agencies in the partnership to take a leadership role in technology and policy innovation.
  • One or more of the key partners in a regional fare card program can take a leadership role as an early adopter of new technologies. Such partners are likely to be in the strongest position to assume the risks associated with the technology and can serve both as a test bed and as an example to the other candidate partner agencies of the value and benefits of a RFC program. During full project implementation, they can also serve as an on-call resource for the other partners on technical issues and decisions.

    While all the partner agencies were open to considering new technology applications for their transit systems, some were more motivated to pursue these opportunities. Kitsap Transit was the first to promote smart card technology, and King County Metro was eager to adopt a variety of new technologies to their systems. Some agencies had made technology investments that turned out to be costly failures and this, together with problems encountered elsewhere with early fare card systems, reinforced a sense on the part of some of the partners that the prudent course was to let others test the systems before adopting them in Puget Sound.

  • Consider establishing a smaller-scale fare card program before seeking to implement a comprehensive region-wide program.
  • The Puget Sound region has benefited tremendously by having precursor fare card programs implemented on a limited basis. It increased riders’ familiarity and comfort with regional fare cards, and also demonstrated the value and viability of such a system. While many areas will not be able to begin with such precursor implementations of a fare card system, the value of that approach in generating support for the eventual RFC program in the Puget Sound was clearly demonstrated.

    In 1991 U-PASS was created by the University of Washington and King County Metro as a small, early fare program. In 1996 Sound Transit was created with a charter that included integration and coordination of transit services across transit agencies in the region. A few years later, it led the creation of the Puget Pass fare program. These experiences established a foundation on which to launch the current RFC Project and positioned a transaction-based fare card system as attractive to the potential partner agencies. Many feel that the RFC Project would not have been possible without these precursor fare programs.

  • Identify mechanisms where possible to offset the initial (first couple of years) costs for smaller agencies to join the regional fare card partnership.
  • Some mechanism to underwrite the costs and liabilities for smaller agencies to join a regional fare card partnership may be the only way to assure full participation from all agencies at the start of such a program. After several years of operations, it is expected that the benefits that will accrue to each agency will more than outweigh the costs of participation, but this may not be the case at the start. Riders may need to be convinced of the value of participation, and institutional players need to be brought on board. Also, as other potential uses of a regional fare card are explored, additional value and benefits are likely to be realized from participation, further justifying the program and eliminating the need for longer-term subsidization.

    Sound Transit financially underwrote the participation of several of the partner agencies in Puget Sound, and this helped convince them to join the RFC Project. Each agency conducted its own analysis of the costs and benefits of participation, and several found that the costs exceeded the benefits. They nonetheless decided to join because of a desire to support what was best for the region, because they didn’t want to fall behind technologically, and because they felt that it would be more costly to enter the project later than at the beginning. Other perceived benefits included enhanced customer service, reduction in fraud and collection costs, reduced burden on bus operators, more equitable revenue distribution, and the potential for new revenue streams.

  • Plan to market a regional fare card for the purchase of goods and services other than transit rides.

    A regional fare card offers more uses than just transit rides. These cards have the capability to be configured and used by customers to pay for a variety of goods and services in addition to transit. This is expected to increase the utility of having a card.

    Public transportation agencies are strongly motivated to seek ways to increase ridership. The RFC Project has the potential to attract new riders as well as retain existing ones. Its smart card can also be adapted for purchases other than transit fares, and, although the Joint Board has directed that the project focus solely at this time on a successful development of the transit fare card application, this marketing potential constitutes another long-term incentive for adoption.

  • Address openly the full range of issues and risks associated with adoption of a regional fare card system with all potential partner agencies.
  • Agencies promoting the use of a regional fare card need to understand the issues and concerns of potential agency partners; discussions with them must respond to their concerns and demonstrate the value of the fare card program over the long run.

    Fare card technology is not without its costs and risks. The RFC agencies worry about issues such as the long-term financial viability of the system vendor, the level of support they will receive, and whether the system will become obsolete. They are concerned about accommodating their specific fare structures within a coordinated regional fare structure. While they value the prospect of a more rational and efficient fare reconciliation system, they are uncertain about its financial impact on them.

  • Enter into a regional fare card project with flexibility and a realistic understanding of the time and effort required.
  • The regional partners need to thoroughly understand the potential impacts of the introduction of fare cards on their existing systems and technologies. They must also take account of other new systems that they may be planning to incorporate into their systems and vehicles. This will include the conduct of human factors studies and the involvement of their operators in determining what will or won’t work well for the agency. These findings must then be addressed from the perspective of the regional partnership to determine how to specify the design requirements for negotiation with the system vendor.

    The new technologies have to be integrated with a variety of legacy systems in transit vehicles and agency back offices. This presents different sets of challenges in each agency. Challenges include ensuring that the systems will work compatibly together, and that operators, managers and maintenance staff will be comfortable with them and have the requisite skills to use them effectively.

A bottom line lesson from the RFC Project in all these tradeoff considerations is that it takes more time, patience, and flexibility than may be anticipated to arrive at a workable partnership that effectively balances the needs of the region with the needs of each agency. A corollary lesson is that it is very easy to become distracted from the primary mission of the partnership to implement a workable and successful fare card system; a clear focus on the mission is required and management needs to avoid deviations from scope. The RFC partner agencies in Puget Sound have decided that this has been worth all their efforts.