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COTA to Implement New Fare System This Fall

Brent Warren Brent Warren COTA to Implement New Fare System This FallPhoto by Walker Evans.
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The Central Ohio Transit Authority plans to implement a new fare management system this fall that it says will help save low-income riders money.

The new system will allow for fare capping, meaning that it will track how many rides are taken by an individual in a month, for example, and stop charging for new rides once the price of an unlimited monthly pass ($62) is reached.

The cap also applies to the cost for daily and weekly passes – so you couldn’t pay more than $4.50 to ride the bus on any given day, no matter how many trips you took (or more than $25 over any seven-day period).

The agency made the decision earlier this year to not raise fares, keeping the cost for a single ride at $2.

Fare capping brings the savings associated with unlimited passes to all riders, even those who can’t afford their upfront cost, said Angel Mumma, COTA’s Chief Financial Officer, calling it “key to making transit equitable.”

In order to benefit from the new system, though, riders will need to add money to an online account and then use their cell phone or a new smart card (that they would get from COTA’s Downtown Customer Experience Center) to board the bus. Cash or a credit card can be used to add funds to the account.

Direct cash payment for the bus will still be available “for the foreseeable future,” according to Mumma, but the agency is going to make a push to explain that paying with a mobile phone or smart card can help riders save money. “We believe the new system will save customers a lot of money, and improve the overall customer experience.”

The new system should speed up boardings, she said, and can allow for the pre-purchase of passes for special events like Red, White and Boom.

COTA is working with three companies on the project; Transit App, Masabi, and VanillaDirect.

Starting on October 17, riders can set up their accounts and start using a smart card or the Transit app on their phones to board the bus (riders who are a part of the C-Pass program, which provides free passes for some Downtown workers, will continue to use the COTA Connector app to get on the bus).

That date was described by Mumma as a “soft launch” for the system, with a “true public rollout” scheduled for November 1.

Riders with the new smart cards and those who choose to use their phones will be able to add funds to their accounts at over 400 retail locations – both locally-owned stores and chains like Walgreens, CVS, Speedway and others.

Other planned changes – pending board approval later this month – include eliminating of the 75-cent up-charge for express routes, a simplified policy for children in which any child under five would ride for free, and eliminating the current one-way restriction for transfers.

Discount for Low-Income Riders

COTA representatives also told CU that the agency is committed to eventually expanding its discounted fare program to anyone who qualifies for one of several existing low-income programs (like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

“We are working on that,” said Mumma, “We’re not going to role it out on this initial launch [in the fall], but hopefully very shortly thereafter.”

The half-off discount is currently available to seniors, veterans, and the disabled.

Federal funding – including the approximately $93 million the agency is due to receive from the American Recovery Act – has played a role in COTA being able to not only maintain service during the last year-and-a-half, but also its ability to move forward with fare changes that will result in less money coming in from riders.

“It allows us a bit more flexibility,” Mumma said. “This is what we should be doing, it’s what’s right for those that need us the most…but the funding absolutely makes it easier.”

A graphic explains the new phone or card-based payment system.
Images provided by COTA.
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