Presto’s Problems Multiply

From the Toronto Star:

Presto’s rollout on the TTC is over budget and fraught with problems. This is not new to anyone who has been following the project, or at least following it to the degree that the agencies involved provide reliable information.

As of March 31, however, the agency had spent $276.7 million deploying Presto on the TTC, according to numbers provided by Metrolinx. That’s almost $22 million higher than the agency’s 2012 estimate of $255 million.

The $276.6-million figure doesn’t reflect work that has yet to be completed or was finished after March 31; those jobs include completing Presto deployment at all subway stations, installing additional self-serve reload machines and fare vending devices across the network, and rolling out fare card readers on all 1,900 TTC buses and 500 Wheel-Trans vehicles.

Also unaccounted for are the future cost of upgrading the Presto system — which currently enables riders to pay their fare with a tap of a prepaid card — to allow for direct payment using credit or debit cards, and the cost of migrating TTC passes onto Presto. [From Ben Spurr’s article]

Metrolinx attempts to offload their problems on the TTC. Reliability problems were first blamed on unusual power supply issues on the older streetcars, but then the issue turned out to be far worse on the bus fleet. Presto’s primary implementation to date is on buses, and this is hardly a new environment for the fare card machines.

Now the cost increases are blamed on scope creep in the TTC contract including the fit-out of the old streetcar fleet and the installation of new fare gates in subway stations.

Meanwhile, complications for riders are legion as Ed Keenan describes: difficulty in obtaining and loading money on fare cards, inconsistent rules for their use, overcharges (and undercharges) for transit rides, and a complete lack of benefits compared to the existing system.

Metrolinx loves to deflect criticism to others, but is slow to accept the blame for shorcomings of its own system’s design.

At the outset, Presto as it existed was a more primitive system designed for a simpler environment: GO trains and buses, with riders who mostly took predictable commuting trips to and from Union Station. As its role expanded to other systems, the shortcomings became obvious to the point that the “Next Generation” Presto was developed for Ottawa. Even then, it had major implementation problems.

The GTA fare structure has long been biased against trips to and in Toronto. Unlike the 905 systems, there is no “co-fare” between the TTC and connecting systems notably GO Transit, and GO’s fares within the 416 compound this problem by charging substantially more to travel shorter distances.

Presto has been touted as the basis for “regional fare integration”, but this has different meanings to different people. At its simplest, Presto would be one card that could “talk” to any fare machine and charge the appropriate “local” fare, little more than standardizing the “currency” of fare transactions without any other changes. On a more aggressive level, fares would be “integrated” so that the cross-border penalty would be reduced or eliminated. It is self-evident that getting rid of fare penalties will cost somebody money in the form of higher fares overall, or increased subsidy. However, Queen’s Park wants a “revenue neutral” scheme so that added subsidies are not required.

Metrolinx has wrestled with new fare structure concepts for a few years, and push-back on their original proposals has delayed the production of a final recommendation. Behind the scenes, the always-preferred option was “fare by distance”, a concept familiar to GO, although not actually implemented “fairly” across its network. This brings very substantial operational problems because the fare system must “know” both the origin and destination of each trip requiring “tap on” and “tap off” for each leg of the journey. This evolved into a scheme to make “rapid transit” a distance-based premium fare zone, a scheme that preserves GO’s rail premium, but destroys the “integrated” nature of the subway within Toronto’s system.

The effect might be to lower fares for cross-border trips (a small minority of all GTA travel) and improve the attractiveness of GO+TTC rides, but at a higher cost to TTC users for whom the subway is an integral part of most travel.

Metrolinx also neglected to determine whether LRT and BRT lines would be “rapid transit” because none of them existed in the data used for their study. Such is the quality of forward thinking at our provincial agency.

In this context, a decision by the TTC on the fare structure to be implemented has been almost impossible, although the TTC must be faulted for keeping a real discussion of the options and limitations under wraps for so long. The TTC missed a chance to market the new fare system with more convenient fares and refuses to address a simplified fare structure, notably time-based transfer validity. That decision immensely complicates the fare calculation requirements for Presto in determining where a “new” trip starts and a second fare should be charged.

For its part, the TTC opted to enlarge its fare gate upgrades from a limited scale needed to bring Presto and accessibility to all entrances, to a full-scale replacement across the system. And, oh yes, with the capability to require “tap out” for all passengers (ignoring that a huge volume of passengers transfer to and from surface routes without using a turnstile). In effect, TTC management enabled by stealth a fare structure that has not been debated or approved by the TTC Board (at least publicly) or by City Council.

The TTC also decided to accelerate the Presto implementation by a year so that it would be fully operational at the end of 2016. This would serve two purposes. On one hand, Metrolinx could brag that the Toronto rollout was “complete” and trumpet huge additional usage (along with the service fees) by Presto. On the other, the TTC could move ahead with its redeployment of station staff who would no longer be selling fare media. Things have not quite worked out as planned, and it is likely that we will not see substantial conversion to Presto until the end of 2017.

Presto itself has design limitations, not least the fact that so much of the fare calculation occurs between the card readers at stations and on vehicles and the card itself, rather than in a back-end system. This is responsible for the oddity that updates to Presto accounts do not actually arrive at the card when they are made online, but only later when all devices in the system learn of the changes through periodic updates. “Open payment” support for credit cards is coming, but until the tracking and calculation of fare discounts is done by a central system, credit cards will only support the equivalent of a cash fare, not the discount schemes available to Presto cardholders. That is not a truly “open” system.

We’re not supposed to talk about any of this because everything Metrolinx and its masters at Queen’s Park do is perfect, Ontario is a transit Nirvana for transit policy going back decades. If we were honest, we would be discussing the alternatives, including technical limitations and funding requirements, but instead the only important work is the manufacture of ever more photo ops.

Try harder.