Ticketing hiccups, increasing weekend service dominate ongoing streetcar discussion

CINCINNATI -- It can all be boiled down to a "teething problem."

That's what a representative for the manufacturer of the streetcar's troubled ticket vending machines told the Cincinnati City Council's transportation committee Tuesday, after two weeks of consistent problems with the machines along the streetcar's 18 stops.

Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority CEO and general manager Dwight Ferrell told committee members that ticket vending is a common problem on a system's launch -- maybe the most common.

"In my thirty years in transit, I've noticed ticket vending machines seem to cause the most stress, because, until you're up and running, you don't see the issues," he said.

Turns out, Cincinnati was (unwittingly) something of a guinea pig.

Kim Green, executive director of business development for SPX Genfare, the firm that built and installed the stations' ticket vending machines, told committee members, "From a design point of view, you don't have a new machine. The machine is solid. We have a new credit card reader as a subset of that machine."

Green said the primary issue at the center of some riders' troubles paying by credit cards are the credit card chip readers that now come with the machines.

The chip readers are so new, Green said, that Cincinnati's streetcar is the first to include them in their network of ticket vending machines across the country.

Hence, the teething metaphor.

"This is not surprising," Green said, adding that he had dispatched technicians over the past several days to repair the problem card readers. Transit officials also indicated that some of the machines' touch screens were freezing intermittently.

As of Wednesday, SORTA announced that all but four stations' card readers had been repaired.

The ticket vending machines were the primary focus of Tuesday's committee meeting, which was dedicated to addressing operational snags the streetcar has hit since its launch more than two weeks ago -- snags that, as it happens, seem to have not hindered ridership numbers. The transit authority announced Tuesday that more than 18,000 people rode the streetcar last weekend, following a huge Oktoberfest showing of 29,000 riders the weekend prior.

The transit authority estimates the streetcar has seen a little more than 120,000 rides since its launch.

Despite those numbers, however, council members expressed urgency in getting the problems fixed. In addition to payment hiccups, those problems have also included keeping on schedule and real-time location data inaccuracies on streetcar station displays.

Councilman Kevin Flynn agreed with transit officials that growing pains are inevitable.

"Whenever you have a new system, you're going to have issues that come up," he said Tuesday.

But Councilwoman Yvette Simpson said this is not the time to be struggling with issues and wished the city had been informed about the card readers being brand new to these machines.

"People are forming their opinions of the streetcar," she told transit officials. "We want them to be as positive as they can be."

SORTA proposed a number of solutions to the ticketing problem during Tuesday's meeting, all focused on simplification, answering Assistant City Administrator John Juech's call to make the process "more intuitive."

The biggest change the transit authority is looking to pursue is an auto-validation process for ticket purchasing. As it stands now, riders must first purchase a ticket and then, by reinserting the ticket into the machine, "validate" it.

It's a process that, after the first week of operations, transit officials said caused riders the most confusion. As a result, SORTA added extra signage to the stops, prompting riders to validate.

But SORTA's proposed solutions eventually prompted more questions. Vice Mayor David Mann expressed confusion over the ticket-pricing scheme, particularly when it comes to the reduced fares, leading to a back-and-forth over how best to designate a "child" rider:

And the issue of "special event" streetcar service remains unresolved. It's an issue that emerged in the days leading up to Oktoberfest, when the transit authority informed the city that it could cost up to $20,000 to run extra service that weekend.

Ferrell told the committee that the city and the transit authority have yet to sit down and hammer out the details surrounding what level of streetcar service should be provided on weekends of special events. The current service contract stipulates two vehicles running on weekends.

The discussion prompted Simpson to raise the question: What constitutes a special event?

This launched the committee and city administrators into speculation as to whether or not they should expect the weekends to be generally busier than weekday ridership, which would go against the transit authority's initial predictions.

While Ferrell suggested the coming cold weather could prove recent weekend ridership to be an anomaly, Juech countered:

Connect with WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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