"Coming Soon" Not Soon Enough With VTA

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found credit and debit card readers on VTA's ticket machines are not working more than two years and $6 million later

By Tony Kovaleski, Liz Wagner and Jeremy Carroll
|  Tuesday, May 22, 2012  |  Updated 11:36 AM PDT
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NBC Bay Area Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski finds that credit and debit card readers on VTA ticket machines are not working more than two years and $6 million later. This story was posted May 21, at 11:19 a.m.

NBC Bay Area Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski finds that credit and debit card readers on VTA ticket machines are not working more than two years and $6 million later. This story was posted May 21, at 11:19 a.m.

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The credit and debit card readers on the Valley Transportation Authority’s ticket vending machines are not working more than two years, and $6 million after they were supposed to have been functional. Santa Clara County taxpayers paid for the improvements, but it’s still not possible to use a debit or credit card to purchase a ticket with VTA. 

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit followed an intriguing paper trail that uncovers a series of missed deadlines and reveals the debit and credit card option was “coming soon” almost three years ago.

VTA management signed a contract in August 2009 that started the process of upgrading the ticket vending machines to accept debit and credit cards. And in 2010, VTA’s marketing department paid for signs on every machine that promise debit and credit cards would soon be functional. The signs read: “No cash? No worries! Debit/credit option on VTA Ticket Vending Machines. Coming soon!”

But soon is not soon enough for some people. 

“When somebody says ‘coming soon’ what do you expect?” Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski asked regular rider Stephanie McKeowan.

“I expect it coming soon,” McKeowan said. “I expect them to follow through.”

She added, “Every time you go to pay for a ticket it says, no credit, no debit available. So what if I don’t have cash on me? It’s not going to work.”

It is a building frustration that also includes VTA’s own employees. Many spoke on hidden camera about the delays.

Kovaleski asked a VTA security guard when he thought the credit card machines would start working.

“They said they were going to start it last year,” the guard responded. “I have no idea.”

When Kovaleski told a VTA fare inspector that the ticket machines didn’t take his credit card she responded, “It hasn’t for 22 years. I wouldn’t hold my breath until it ever does. They promised it would be active three years ago, but we’re still waiting.”

“They haven’t been able to fix it?” Kovaleski asked.

“Not yet,” the fare inspector said. “They should. We are in the heart of Silicon Valley. Should that have been available 10, 20 years ago? Absolutely.”

Kovaleski asked another fare inspector about the credit card functionality.

“I tried using the credit card,” he said, “what’s up with that?”

“It says coming soon,” she said. “Did you read it?”

“Yes,” Kovaleski responded.

“We have no idea,” the fare inspector said. “It’s been coming soon for the last three years.”

“Don’t you think they would make more money with the machines working?” Kovaleski asked.

“Of course,” the fare inspector said. “People would be buying more tickets.”

Internal emails reviewed by the Investigative Unit point to a series of missed deadlines, starting with a February 2010 memo when a VTA staff member writes, “We are looking to put debit/credit card processing online by May 2010.”

The VTA missed that deadline.

Then in October 2010, a VTA employee writes a memo asking: “Is there a definite date when the credit cards will be activated?”

A VTA manager responds, “No.”

An October 2010 newsletter told riders that working credit and debit card machines were, “nearing completion.”

And in May 2011 an internal memo asks, “What is the ETA on accepting credit cards at ticket vending machines?”

A VTA manager responds, “I would still guess nine months.”

We took this information to public transit advocate Chris Lepe. He is a Silicon Valley community planner with the transportation watchdog group, Transform.

Kovaleski asked Lepe if the delays are acceptable.

“No,” Lepe said. “I don’t think so.”

“What is the message there?” Kovaleski asked.

“That the agency maybe doesn’t have its act together,” Lepe said.

Kovaleski also asked VTA General Manager Michael Burns about the series of delays.

“Taxpayer money has paid vendors for a system that will take credit cards,” Kovaleski said. “And it’s still not working?”

“That’s correct,” Burns said.

“You’ve got two years of memos that say it is going to happen and it still hasn’t happened,” Kovaleski said. “Is that a failure?”

“Well, it’s clearly a problem,” Burns said.

A May 2010 memo exposes a clear lack of confidence inside VTA during the early stages of the credit and debit card upgrade. Referring to the “coming soon” signs, a VTA employee writes, “I don’t think we will be accepting credit/debit cards before the fall. (I won’t say which year). Guess it depends on what your definition of “soon” is!”

Kovaleski asked Burns what “coming soon” means to him.

“A month?” Kovaleski asked. “Two weeks? A week?”

“Soon,” Burns said. “Whatever soon is.”

He added, “If you are saying it was probably a mistake to put those 'coming soon' signs up, I would say you are right. We probably shouldn’t have done it. We should have waited until we were totally sure that it was coming soon.”

Burns said problems with software and difficulties in meeting credit card security standards are partially to blame for the nearly three years of holdups. VTA also says none of the delays have been caused by the private company contracted to install the credit card equipment.

Either way, regular riders are pushing for a quick fix.

“It is a little frustrating,” McKeowan said. “Personally I wish it did happen a little sooner. I wish we did have it now.”

Millions of tax dollars later, the VTA has failed to meet riders’ expectations. They are the very same people who can use their credit cards on Muni, BART and Caltrain.

“But I can’t on VTA?” Kovaleski asked Burns.

“You will be able to,” Burns said.

“Coming soon?” Kovaleski asked.

“August,” Burns said. 

As we have reported, VTA has the highest fare evasion rate in the region. VTA fare inspectors told us they believe the non-working credit and debit card machines are contributing to the increased numbers of free riders on the light rail.

The message remains “Coming soon!” The new deadline is August. We will follow up for you.

If you have another story you think we should investigative, email theunit@nbcbayarea.com or call 1-888-996-TIPS. 

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