Consider the value of implementing a limited fare pass system initially to serve as an interim experience base for a comprehensive region-wide electronic fare card system.
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 Puget Sound RFC has benefited from having first hand experience with several transit fare pass systems over the past decade. While these were implemented to provide immediate benefits to transit riders, it was understood from the start that they were temporary systems – interim steps on the way to a comprehensive regional fare card system. These early fare systems provided invaluable experience that laid the foundation for the RFC project, giving passengers, system operators and transit agencies a chance to learn about these systems and to identify and resolve some of their issues before committing to a full scale, region-wide fare card system. The Puget Sound experience suggests the following:

  • Implement a limited-deployment fare pass system before implementing a region-wide fare card system.
  • Include in the regional fare card program individuals who gained first-hand experience with the initial smaller-scale fare pass system.
  • Proceed deliberately in a step-wise fashion from more limited applications to more complex regional applications.
  • Alternatively, use the Puget Sound, or others', experiences and the lessons learned and seek to adapt those lessons to the local context and needs.

Before implementing a region-wide electronic fare card system, consider the value of initially deploying a limited fare pass system, such as one for a university, to give transit riders a chance to get used to it. This also benefits the agencies by helping identify and resolve potential problems or obstacles to full implementation. The alternative is to look to the fare card implementation experiences and lessons from other locations and seek to apply those lessons to the local context and needs.

Two precursor fare pass systems were implemented in the Puget Sound region in the early and mid 1990s: U-Pass and FlexPass. U-Pass was established in 1991 with the primary objective of reducing the number of students, staff and faculty driving alone to the main campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Riders were provided with a pass that offered a variety of benefits, including not having to pay cash for their rides, and an unlimited number of rides on King County Metro, Community Transit and Sound Transit buses. The success of this program led to the development of FlexPass, a similar system that is now in use by over 130 major employers in the Puget Sound region. FlexPass was the first employer-based program of its kind in the nation. While these programs did not use electronic fare cards, they provided many travelers in the region with experience using a single fare pass valid on buses across multiple agencies.

In September 1999, Sound Transit introduced a more advanced fare card system, called Puget Pass, under its Fare Integration Program. A region-wide agreement among five transit agencies provided transit riders a one-ticket fare system (though not a single regional fare structure) with seamless transfers on regional bus, commuter rail and light rail services. Puget Pass represented Sound Transit's fulfillment of a commitment in its ballot initiative as well as a contractual obligation to the Washington State legislature to support regionalism in Puget Sound. This system ultimately benefited the RFC project because many of those who participated in negotiating the terms of the Puget Pass program also participated in the early deliberations and development of the RFC project. The governing group responsible for Puget Pass evolved into the Joint Board governance structure that now manages the RFC project. The difficulty and cost of reconciling revenues in this paper-based system also focused the attention of potential RFC project partners on the advantages of electronic fare media in this regard. It is useful, therefore, to tap the experience of participants in these precursor fare pass systems when designing a comprehensive, region-wide fare card program. Where possible, select individuals who were instrumental in designing and operating the limited systems for governing positions in the region-wide fare card program

The lessons here point to the value of moving in a step-wise fashion toward the development of a full regional fare card system, building upon the experiences gained from less ambitious fare programs having some elements in common with a full system. Whether precursor fare systems are always needed is a matter of judgment, although their value in helping participants "get on board" with the concepts and challenges cannot be overemphasized. Agencies in other parts of the country can now develop their fare card programs by building on the experiences of the Puget Sound RFC system and other more fully developed projects. The challenges are to understand the similarities and differences between regions, and how those differences might suggest adjustments in approach and implementation.

A regional fare card project needs to be tailored to the needs, capabilities, customer base and institutional context of each region. Consider these factors in deciding the potential value of implementing an interim, smaller scale fare system to help understand the challenges and get participants on board with the concept. However, the general themes exhibited in the Puget Sound project can be expected to be relevant for most other situations involving multiple agencies and systems. At this point in the evolution of regional fare card programs across the country, the lessons from Puget Sound and elsewhere may be just as useful, and perhaps more cost-effective, as implementing limited deployments in a step-wise fashion.