As a multiregion transit fare card finally starts to gain momentum two decades after the idea was proposed, officials make a push to build up public enthusiasm by changing its name to Clipper.
With a history of delays, unfulfilled promises and cost overruns, mentioning the word “TransLink” to a Bay Area resident would likely draw a frustrated sigh.
With the planning and implementation for the multi-agency transit fare card about to enter its third decade, officials are seemingly trying to change the image of the TransLink brand by changing its name.
By the middle of next year, the TransLink card will be called Clipper, a change intended to usher in a new era for the fare card that officials say will eventually be usable on all public transportation systems in the nine-county Bay Area.
Brian Key, a 44-year-old San Francisco resident who has been using TransLink for more than a year, said he doesn’t quite see the point in making the switch to Clipper.
“You know, I love TransLink for what it does for me right now, so I don’t really know why they’re trying to change the name,” Key said. “But if they think that it’s going to get more people using the card, then I guess you can’t fault them for trying something new.”
A reloadable plastic transit pass, the TransLink card can currently be used on Golden Gate Transit and Ferry, the Dumbarton Express, AC Transit and Muni. It is also being rolled out at limited locations on BART and Caltrain.
According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional group in charge of managing the program, calling it Clipper will allow the agency to “re-launch TransLink as an improved product and better establish the brand with the Bay Area public.”
TransLink is also a name used by several transit agencies across the world, most notably in Vancouver, British Columbia.
While the Clipper name could conjure up thoughts of a woeful pro basketball franchise, MTC officials prefer to believe the name will evoke images of the Clipper ships of yore, which played a key role in developing the Bay Area as a vital West Coast port.
“We look forward to working with the MTC and all our regional transit providers to make the smart card project successful,” Muni spokesman Judson True said of the name change.
Getting the public to abandon the TransLink name, which was first unveiled in the early 1990s, will not be easy or cheap. All the equipment and signage that bears the current name will have to be changed and the MTC plans on spending $500,000 in public outreach and maintenance costs to initiate the rebranding effort.
The idea for the regional transit fare card was set in motion in the months following the Loma Prieta earthquake, which crippled the Bay Area's infrastructure and put new emphasis on establishing a more efficient transit network, MTC spokesman John Goodwin said.
Creating a method that connects transit agencies — from Santa Clara County to Sonoma County — into one seamless network, the TransLink card aims to ease public transportation travel, particularly for those riders who use multiple routes and transit systems for their commutes. TransLink, which can be automatically reloaded with more fare value when linked to a credit card or bank account, aims to ultimately allow riders to carry just one card for use within 26 transit systems.
With $4 million in grant funding, the MTC began developing the TransLink idea in 1993; at that time, officials said they expected that the regional ticket program would be operational in most transit vehicles by 2001. The first magnetic stripe ticket prototype, however, posed too many technical problems and the initial program was discontinued.
In the mid-1990s, officials began looking at “smart card” technology, which would give the system greater capacity to allow the card to work with multiple transit agencies and the differing fare systems.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the MTC was able to run a successful test pilot program in a select group of transit vehicles; six years later, only five Bay Area transit agencies — Golden Gate Transit, AC Transit, BART, Muni and Caltrain — had the TransLink equipment installed.
Originally projected to cost about $25 million for full implementation, the total cost of the project has ballooned to around $408 million.
The MTC has said that the main challenge to full TransLink implementation has been getting the region’s host of competing transit agencies — which includes ferry, bus and train services — on the same page. In Washington, D.C., where there is a similar one-stop card, the region is served by one major transit system. In the Bay Area, there are 26 such agencies.
Along with the region’s political issues, the card has also been beset by technological and manufacturing problems. ERG, the company in charge of installing TransLink, has consistently pushed back launch dates for the software, citing glitches in the technology and problems with testing the hardware.
The company, which has suffered a series of financial setbacks this decade, was sued by Sydney for $88 million for failing to deliver on a promise to introduce a TransLink-type system to the city.
The MTC was also embroiled in a legal showdown with San Diego-based manufacturer Cubic Corp., which sued the agency, claiming it showed unfair practices in awarding its contract to ERG. Although the conflict was eventually resolved, it contributed to TransLink’s scheduling woes.
Despite the setbacks, the TransLink effort made strides this year. Muni fully implemented TransLink this summer. The San Francisco transit agency, which carries more than 670,000 passengers each day, currently has nearly 10,000 people using the TransLink card on its system, according to spokesman Judson True.
With BART and Caltrain also onboard, and SamTrans scheduled to be integrated within months, the TransLink program has unprecedented momentum behind it.
In November, an average of 44,250 riders used TransLink, a 135 percent increase is users from November 2008.
BART unsettled about Clipper transition
While the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has been working the kinks out of TransLink, BART, which carries an average of 350,000 passengers each weekday, was creating its own reloadable fare card system called EZ Rider.
At one point, some of BART’s board members suggested that the transit agency should stick with the EZ Rider card, and drop out of the regional effort to integrate TransLink into its system.
Although there is still discontent among some BART officials, the transit agency has said it remains committed to TransLink, which will be renamed Clipper this year.
“We hope our customers find that the Clipper card delivers on its promises of providing simple, seamless access to multiple transit systems across the Bay,” BART spokesman Linton Johnson said.
Connecting the Bay Area
TransLink’s goal is to provide a common payment utility for all Bay Area transit services.
The following transit providers are currently using TransLink:
- AC Transit
- Golden Gate Transit
Eventually, all of the following Bay Area transit agencies expected to accept TransLink:
- Alameda/Oakland Ferry
- American Canyon Transit
- Benicia Breeze
- Cloverdale Transit
- County Connection
- Dixon Transit
- Fairfield-Suisun Transit
- Healdsburg In-City Transit
- Petaluma Transit
- Rio Vista Delta Breeze
- Santa Clara VTA
- Santa Rosa CityBus
- Sonoma County Transit
- Tri Delta Transit
- Union City Transit
- Vacaville City Coach
- Vallejo Transit
- VINE (Napa County)
- Yountville Shuttle
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission
Facts and figures about TransLink:
44,250 Average weekday riders using TransLink in November
40,550 Average weekday riders using TransLink in October
9,450 TransLink holders using Muni
4,975 TransLink holders using BART
$25 million Original projected cost of TransLink
$408 million Current cost of TransLink
26 Transit agencies expected to eventually use TransLink
$500,000 Estimated cost of changing the name from TransLink to Clipper
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission