Examine the contextual factors and carefully manage the associated issues that will determine the success or failure of a regional fare card project.
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

The context in which a partner agency conducts its operations has a significant effect on their view of the potential value and benefits to be derived from participation in a regional fare card project. Context refers to aspects of each partner agency such as characteristics of their customer base, geographic constraints, agency services mix, internal agency governance structure, legacy systems in place, and the agency’s existing fare structure. More detailed insights regarding the importance of accounting for agency characteristics and differences in context are discussed below:

Examine the different contextual factors associated with each partner agency.

Partner agencies in a regional fare coordination project are likely to differ in a number of key contextual factors including:

  • Customer base: travel patterns and preferences, demographic size/characteristics, rural/urban character, income levels, preferences for cash vs. pass accounts.
  • Regional geography: diversity, distances, connectivity.
  • Agency size and services: number of vehicles, system miles (fixed route, demand responsive, vanpool), regional versus local service balance.
  • Agency governance structure: political context, organizational structure, decision-making.
  • Technology applications and needs: legacy systems, new technologies, in-house technical sophistication and capabilities.
  • Existing fare structure: number of different fare types, number of institutional accounts with local businesses to support employee ridership, passes.

Address the unique agency-specific contextual issues.

Each Puget Sound RFC partner agency brought its contextual issues to discussions about participating in the regional program. Each sought to achieve a partnering arrangement that reflected their specific situation, and avoided arrangements or compromises that could jeopardize its ability to maintain and grow a satisfied customer base of transit riders.

The smaller, more rural and isolated partner agencies generally serve lower income customers who have a strong preference for paying cash for their transit rides. These agencies were concerned that their customers would be uncomfortable with anything other than a pay-as-you-go fare system, and that their lower income customers would not be able or willing to pay the minimum amount needed to purchase a fare card.

These transit customers might only rarely take long-distance, cross-jurisdiction transit rides which the regional fare card is particularly designed to facilitate. Customers of at least one of the partner agencies are largely dependent on the Washington State Ferry system (also a partner agency) for access to the urban centers of Puget Sound, thereby further complicating regional travel.

Each partner agency lobbied for its own interests and those of its customers. None wanted to risk losing customers because of the RFC program. For some of the smaller outlying agencies, the estimated costs of participation exceeded the benefits they thought they could derive.

Map the contextual issues carefully in devising potential solutions.

Several factors were critical in overcoming these contextual issues.

  1. Sound Transit promised compensatory funding to several agencies to offset potential losses from participation during the early years of the program. This served as a powerful incentive for joining in the partnership.
  2. Equally important, however, was the value each agency placed on the long-run benefits of support for regionalism. The agencies believed that their best interests, including those of their customers, would ultimately be well served by supporting the regional partnership.
  3. The partners believed that the value of a single fare medium would lower their costs and would be embraced by their customers for the seamless travel benefits it offered. Compensation from Sound Transit would cover the initial period during which the benefits of the new fare card could be promoted to and adopted by their customers, a process that agencies projected could take several years to accomplish.
  4. The partners adopted a RFC organizational structure that allowed each of these contextual factors, and the issues associated with them, to be addressed in a tiered fashion, beginning with discussions among intermediate-level Subject Area Advisory Teams. Issues that could not be resolved at that level were elevated to higher organizational levels.

Forge a regional partnership arrangement capable of addressing the specific characteristics of individual partner agencies and their customers.

While developing a regional fare card partnership program, the following should be considered:

  • Identified issues should be tracked through the discursive process within the organizational arrangements provided by the partnership. Ultimately the governing bodies of each partner agency must decide where they have flexibility to meet the requirements of partnership participation and where they need to stand firm in support of their agency’s concerns.
  • A cogent case needs to be made for the overriding value of regionalism. Factors that helped in the Puget Sound included funding that was made available to motivate participation and defray the early costs of entry, an experience base with an early and limited fare card program called Puget Pass, visits by RFC partners to the fare card experiment in the Bay Area, and support from the Washington State Legislature for meeting the interests of everyone in the region, a goal jeopardized by the prospects that some agencies might opt out.
  • A RFC Governing Board (in the case of the Puget Sound RFC, the Joint Board) must operate with the best interests of the entire region in mind. Making decisions based on this ethic includes listening to the needs and circumstances (i.e., understanding the context) of each partner agency and seeking balance in decisions that impact the success of the program for the entire region. At a technical level this means taking into account the technical sophistication of each agency, their legacy systems, and the hardware and software modifications planned or in place in ways that can work successfully for each partner as well as the whole regional system.

Support for the Central Puget Sound RFC Project has been strengthened by a collaborative approach that seeks to account for the differences and similarities in the context in which each of the partner agencies operates. Accounting for the contextual factors discussed herein in the design and governance of the RFC Project has fostered a high level of trust and support for the regional approach, along with a willingness to compromise where needed to assure that the system will work for everyone.