Streetcar ticket-vending machines have officials considering other options

Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-08 09:23:05-04

CINCINNATI -- Christopher Wyatt and his wife, Kristina, were hosting some out-of-town family little more than a month ago, and -- as proponents of Cincinnati's new streetcar -- they wanted to show it off.

Little did they know they were about to fall victim to one of the biggest problems still plaguing the streetcar, its 19 ticket-vending machines -- an issue that has transit and city officials nearing the end of the line with the vendor that made them.

Wyatt and his family drove in from Hyde Park and parked near the Central Parkway streetcar stop between Vine and Walnut streets, with the intention of riding the full loop to sight-see before having dinner.

"As we arrived at the platform, the electronic display indicated that we had eight minutes until the next train," he said. "This seemed like plenty of time to buy our fare."

Turns out, it nearly wasn't.

Wyatt was attempting to purchase all four tickets at once with his credit card, but what he didn't know was that -- among a whole slew of issues facing these machines -- the process of paying by credit card has proven the most problematic.

"I first attempted to buy all four tickets using my credit card, but after trying several times, was unsuccessful," he said. The problem was that the keypad wasn't properly entering his zip code, which is a required step when swiping to pay.

Fortune was on their side.

"This took several minutes to figure out. Luckily I had plenty of singles on me, so I reverted to paying cash, individually, for each ticket," he said, a time-consuming process when it's a matter of minutes that will determine if you make the train or not.

"I began to wonder, would we all be able to ride, or would we have to wait for the next train?"

'A bunch of lemons'

Officials attribute the malfunctions to the fact that this is the first time they've ever used this type of credit card reader on a streetcar system.

"The credit card readers ... have probably been our top issue in terms of problems that impact the customers," said Paul Grether, who heads up the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority's rail services division. SORTA acts as liaison between the city, which owns the streetcar, and the firms that assist in its maintenance and operations.

"This is the newest system to comply with the new (Payment Council Industry's) compliance requirements," said Dan Gilfand during last week's transportation committee meeting. Gilfand is director of programs and services for Illinois-based Genfare, Inc., the firm hired to provide the vending machines. The PCI is the organization that regulates credit card transactions' security standards.

Gilfand told the committee he's confident his team is close to a fix.

"While this has been a long-standing concern, we believe we are very close to having at least the most critical issues resolved very soon," he said.

But the committee still seemed concerned after Gilfand's presentation Tuesday.

City Council member Amy Murray chairs the committee. She told WCPO that, if it was just one issue with the vending machines, she would feel better.

But it's not so simple. In addition to the card readers, Grether outlined a number of other mechanical issues with the machines, including tickets jamming, coin hoppers overflowing and ticket reading and encoding software problems.

"To me, it's overwhelming," Murray said. "If it was one issue, they could say, 'We're working on it,' and I'd be confident. It seems like every possible operation of the ticket-vending machine is failing.

"I feel like we've heard this before," she said. "It just seems like, the ticket-vending machines, it's just a bunch of lemons."

Committee member P.G. Sittenfeld didn't hold back his frustration during Tuesday's meeting.

Addressing Genfare, he said, "I'm completely baffled that you would come in specially from the Chicago area, and what I'm hearing is, rather than having a failing vendor come to us, you came in and told us that everything's fine, fixes are coming, that this is routine.

"This isn't routine to any of us," he said.

Passing the buck?

Gilfand further explained the technical issues by saying many of them are avoidable through procedural, cycled maintenance.

"In order to keep (the equipment) in fine, working condition, there are cycle-count-type procedures that need to be followed from a maintenance standpoint," Gilfand told the committee. "We don't necessarily always have visibility on that. We can see it when we have Genfare staff on site to review whether it seems there are some areas that need to be addressed there."

Since the streetcar's September 2016 launch, Genfare has sent staff to inspect the ticket machines three times: once last fall, and twice this past summer.

Murray told Gilfand that wasn't enough.

"I'm shocked that we first reported these issues last fall, and the next time you came wasn't until July," she said during last week's hearing.

Gilfand acknowledged that Genfare could have done more to monitor the routine maintenance being done on the vending machines.

"Genfare certainly owes SORTA a proper report on that to help to identify any areas that can be improved on the SORTA side, while Genfare certainly has some areas where we need to improve, as well," he said.

The fact that multiple players are responsible for keeping the system running became a source of frustration for Sittenfeld, who said that every time this comes up, it seems to be someone else's problem.

"Sometimes there's a bit of a bank shot where the city administration will say, 'Oh, that's SORTA,' and SORTA will say, 'Well, that's one of our sub-vendors,'" he said.

Committee member Kevin Flynn echoed Sittenfeld, saying, "It's time for us to be out of the place where we're hearing, 'It's someone else's problem.'"

Keep it simple, streetcar

For Flynn, the problem boils down to what he described as the complexity of the ticket-vending process. 

"It shouldn't be this hard, guys. It really shouldn't," he said. He compared the streetcar ticket vending to parking space kiosks that have started popping up around the city.

"Of the complications involved in a streetcar system, this should be the easy one," he said. "This should be the juggling of one ball. It can't get simpler than that.

"The perception that this leaves: We can't get the simplest thing right."

Genfare promised a corrective action improvement plan by next month, and the committee asked the city administration to prepare a report on the best course of action on proceeding with SORTA's agreement with Genfare's involvement in the streetcar.

A transition to a third-party ticket-vending option seems fraught with a whole other set of obstacles. The software Genfare provided is proprietary, meaning the city would have to purchase that software in order to continue, along with a whole new set of ticket-vending machines. 

Committee member Yvette Simpson raised this question.

"We're talking about machines that need to be operated continuously," she said. "If we were to terminate that relationship, how quickly would that happen?"

Grether said transitioning to a third-party vendor would involve a 6-12 month process and a "significant cost to the taxpayer."

"This puts us in a hard situation," Murray said. "If we stay where we are, I can't tell you that in a year we won't be in the same situation."

Meanwhile, Grether said SORTA plans to seek compensation from Genfare for fare revenue lost due to ticketing malfunctions.

"It is SORTA's full intent to seek reimbursement of the appropriate costs for this," Grether told the committee.

What does this look like from the outside?

Wyatt said he's glad his in-laws didn't really notice the ticketing troubles.

"My in-laws loved the streetcar, and were oblivious to the ticketing experience," he said. "They were comfortably seated at a bench taking in the view, while my wife and I fumbled with the fare machine."

His in-laws were alarmed when police officers approached them to check their tickets -- which apparently were not "validated," a process that's supposed to happen automatically -- but said their experience was positive.

"Overall though it was a fun experience for them though. I just feel that the ticketing should work better."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.