TransLink progress on slow track

Urban commute congestion is a significant enemy of our Bay Area lifestyle and economy, so The Examiner generally supports sanely budgeted projects offering a reasonable potential for improving regional travel options. The TransLink universal Bay Area transit pass is one such promising concept.

TransLink, when fully functional, would empower the Bay Area’s transit riders to travel on 26 participating bus/train systems with one convenient prepaid digital fare card. It would make public transit simpler and more inviting, ending the common aggravations of being forced to carry correct change, purchase multiple monthly passes and remember to use applicable free transfers.

Automatically scanned by digital card readers, the TransLink passes would have the additional benefit of lowering transit system operating expenses — eliminating a substantial percentage of cash transactions, with all their accompanying costs of collecting, processing and safeguarding troves of money. In theory, this freed-up transit funding could be used for providing better passenger service.

On Monday, the TransLink Operating Group, representing the participating provider agencies, issued notably mixed news in its latest progress discussions. On the positive side, more than 4,500 test cards are being used daily on Golden Gate buses and ferries plus AC Transit buses in the East Bay. Software bugs at the two agencies are now largely fixed and a full rollout there seems on track for the end of this year.

But warning notes were being sounded for the scheduled large-scale test that is also supposed to commence by the end of 2007 on the Bay Area’s two biggest systems — BART and Muni — plus the speedy, three-county Caltrain line.

Although all the agencies were expected to start testing at the same time this December, BART is now saying the difficulties of integrating “extremely complicated” software will require considerably more time before going online. However, Muni and Caltrain are not announcing any delays as yet.

There is no point in denying that the long-awaited TransLink program has been repeatedly held up at every stage of development since the Metropolitan Transportation Commission awarded the original contract to Motorola in 1999. As the all-too-predictable corollary to TransLink’s litany of software glitches and unexpected problems, the starting $25 million cost estimate has now more than quintupled to $130 million.

These problems are dismaying and should be addressed as firmly as possible. But there is insufficient cause for panicking. Such slowdowns and ballooning costs are unfortunately almost commonplace in any large-scale technical project — whether public, private or a mix — especially when convoluted software and interagency cooperation is involved.

The Bay Area’s potential benefits from making public transit more attractive and reducing traffic gridlock far outweigh the frustrations of creating TransLink. The fact that TransLink continues moving ahead, albeit more slowly and expensively than hoped, is sufficient cause for remaining optimistic.

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