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.
The Puget Sound RFC project is technically, procedurally and organizationally very complex, and this level of complexity places substantial demands in terms of time and effort on the participant agencies and their staffs. One of the RFC Site Managers stated the challenge succinctly: "A regional fare card project will be more difficult and complex than you can imagine." More detailed insights include the following:
- Assign a full time Site Manager having the requisite project management and substantive skills and experience with the sole responsibility of managing its program implementation.
- Recognize in advance that an iterative, consensus-based process is very time consuming and plan accordingly.
- Anticipate the large amount of time that document review will take for all the parties involved in the project.
- Develop a realistic schedule, and provide adequate time in the schedule to accomplish all the work that needs to be done. Allow additional time as a safety factor to accommodate document review and related activities and to avoid schedule slippage.
- Provide for project management oversight and guidance to gain efficiency and coordination across all the tasks and work groups.
- Take account of the size and experience of each agency to help "level the playing field," and offer extra support where it is needed.
- Look beyond the immediate demands of the project's day-to-day activities and factor into the regional fare card plans for the long-term needs of each agency and the region.
- Leverage the experience and resources of the larger partner agencies, and seek ways to support the staffing requirements of the smaller partner agencies.
- Be flexible and willing to make changes during the development of a successful regional fare card project, as it is impossible to anticipate all the issues and challenges that will arise.
It is helpful for the Site Manager to have worked for the agency long enough to be able to represent the agency's interests effectively in regional meetings and discussions. Consider reassigning the Site Manager’s prior responsibilities to other staff so that he or she can work full time on the regional farecard program, and recognize that the time required for this job may compete with other agency demands on a Site Manager’s time and attention. Staff assigned part-time to the project may also feel the stress of having to shoulder additional responsibilities.
Because the decision process is based on consensus, considerable emphasis is placed on process. Many of the partner agencies said they would prefer to keep the process simpler, though they don't want to give up the consensus model. Contributing to this degree of complexity are the technical and legal issues that have to be worked out, and an elaborate process for both the vendor and the partners to address issues and questions. Given the large number of participants in the process, the status of pending design issues and the response/resolution needs to be tracked and documented. New vendor and agency staff are continually joining the process (as others leave), and it is important to have a record of decisions. Contract changes may be necessary to reflect these decisions, and this change management process must be carefully documented.
Decision documentation takes place in a variety of ways, including "action items" that are relatively simple follow-up; document review and workshop comments; business rules; and Request for Information (RFI), that are typically used for more complex issues. For example, vendor and agency RFIs are submitted in writing. The response is then reviewed and either accepted and “closed,” or the RFI is resubmitted with requests for clarification or additional questions. Some RFI's can be exchanged numerous times between the partner agencies and the vendor and take a period of several months to reach resolution. There can be hundreds of items in each of the documentation categories noted above and the iterative review and resolution process consumes much staff time over and above their normal work load.
The vendor produces very detailed design documentation that must be cycled through each agency for careful review and comment. These documents number in the hundreds of pages and their review requires technical, legal, and other types of expertise on the part of the agencies and Regional Team.
The Site Managers from each of the seven partner agencies, along with selected members of their agency staffs, must attend frequent meetings of the RFC team in order to stay abreast of the project and effectively manage it on behalf of their agency. Site Managers typically attend several meetings a week in Seattle, which entails significant travel time for those coming from outlying agencies. They also attend many Subject Area Advisory Team (SAAT) meetings (some managers attend every one) because they feel this is an important way to exercise managerial control over key decisions and keep up with the flow of information. Time spent away from their agency is time they are unavailable to participate in its regular business, and this has created frustration and problems for agency management as well as the RFC Site Managers.
Many of the partner agencies consider the Puget Sound RFC Project milestone schedule to be excessively tight. The burden of a demanding schedule was exacerbated in some cases by an initial lack of organization. Examples include some SAATs that operated with no work scopes and limited guidance and coordination, and the lack of a clearly identified project management role in the Interlocal agreement. Another consequence of the tight schedule is the perception by participants is that there is too much pressure to make decisions quickly, without sufficient time to review and deliberate.
Elements of the RFC organizational structure duplicate in some respects the internal structures in some of the partner agencies. For example, King County Metro has internal committees that are similar to many of the RFC SAAT committees. The smaller partner agencies on the other hand tend not to have comparable organizational components that could constitute an experience base for the RFC. In circumstances where there is overlap, it is helpful to seek ways to achieve synergies and efficiencies. In addition, the more experienced partners can help and support the less experienced partners as has successfully occurred in the Puget Sound RFC program.
Some Puget Sound RFC agency managers said that they were concerned that the intense day-to-day pressure of schedule and issue resolution was precluding opportunities to give adequate attention to future-oriented visionary thinking about the project and its implications for both the region and the individual agencies. Regional fare card programs require the guidance afforded by a long-term vision of how the program fits into a regional strategy.
From a staffing point of view, the Puget Sound RFC partner agencies say that they have had problems getting the best-qualified staff to work on the RFC project because staff members are assigned to other work, there is a lack of budget to support additional staffing, or the needed skills are hard to find in the agency. Also, a significant time burden has been added to the normal workload of subject area experts within the agencies to review documents, attend meetings, and prepare their agencies for the new systems. The impact has been greater on the smaller partner agencies because they have fewer resources. Thus agencies have had to be selective of what they will focus on and to rely on other partner agencies with particular expertise to focus on some of these topics.
The Puget Sound RFC project is very large, and it is bound to encounter unforeseen problems and challenges. One manager mentioned that no project of this size can expect to get everything right at the outset. It is critical to be flexible and willing to change as circumstances evolve. Because of the project’s size and complexity, its schedule is entwined with those of other major projects also underway in the partner agencies (e.g., radio systems; GPS/AVL; automatic passenger counters; point-of-sale system for ferries). Schedule slippage in one project can affect the others, through both resource implications as well as technical integration requirements. Organizations undertaking a regional fare card project must fully understand these inter-dependencies from the beginning if they are to avoid costly problems. Finally, fare card systems that require some degree of customization or modification will involve more time and complexity than acceptance of an off-the-shelf system. In the case of the Central Puget Sound RFC Project, the system is being procured from a vendor who is making modifications to existing devices and software to accommodate the regional business and operating rules and the need to integrate this system with existing third party hardware. One system component in particular, the Driver Display Unit (DDU), has required significant modifications of the vendor’s system to accommodate emerging smart bus initiatives. Agencies considering a RFC Project should carefully consider these time and effort implications when choosing between customized and off-the-shelf systems.