Users of TransLink's new Compass card will tap in and tap out to pay to ride the transit system. The $171-million smart card and faregates system is now over budget but officials aren't yet saying by how much.

Compass card over budget but not delayed: TransLink

Officials won't yet give revised project cost, insist slow rollout of cards, transit faregates was always intended.

TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler says there’s no delay in the expected launch of transit faregates and Compass cards but she confirmed the project will go over its $171-million budget.

Officials aren’t yet saying how big the cost overrun will be.

“It’s going to be a bit higher than initially estimated,” Olewiler said.

“There are some additional costs that were not foreseen at the beginning of the project. But it’s to make the system work and these things weren’t known by us or the supplier at the time.”

Operating costs have escalated on some fronts, she said, including provision of customer information.

Mike Madill, TransLink vice-president of enterprise initiatives, wouldn’t disclose details, only saying the costs of the project are currently being examined as part of a recurring review and more information will be available in a few weeks.

“I wouldn’t even say overrun at this point in time,” Madill said.

“I would say we’re reviewing the budget and we don’t yet know what that review will show us as to whether or not there’s any adjustment to the budget required.”

He wouldn’t say what project cost estimate was last provided to TransLink’s board.

Madill did note the original budget figure was in 2009 dollars and that some escalation by 2013 isn’t unexpected.

Both Madill and Olewiler rejected accusations that TransLink has failed to deliver the project on time because the faregates – labeled ‘Operational in Fall 2013’ – won’t actually be closed and holding back would-be fare evaders until well into 2014.

They say the gates are operational now – although not yet flapping – and Compass cards are being tested in advance of the smart card being made available to the general public in the months ahead.

Madill said Compass cards will be made available to small limited groups of passengers starting in late fall, with more being added in stages through the winter and into the spring of 2014, by which time anyone should be able to get one.

The closing of the gates so people can no longer simply walk through and must tap their cards for access should happen sometime in 2014, he said, but timelines may shift depending on what’s learned in passenger beta tests.

“We haven’t changed our plan,” he said, adding the strategy has always been to begin with testing and then use a carefully measured rollout to work out bugs and ensure riders have lots of time to adapt to the changes.

Regular tickets and passes will continue to work in parallel with the Compass cards for months before old fare types are phased out and the gates lock.

“I think it’s semantics,” Olewiler said. “I don’t view it as a delay. I view this as a logical way to bring in a very large IT and behavioural change project. We’re going to take the time to get it right.”

Asked if TransLink will collect more net fare revenue from passengers by reducing prepaid fare discounts – Compass Card users will get just a 14 per cent discount versus cash fares instead of the more than 20 per cent now provided to FareSaver ticket buyers – Olewiler said that’s not the aim.

“It was not the overall intent to raise prices,” she said, adding the system of discounts had to be streamlined and simplified.

“Some will pay more, some won’t pay more and some will pay less.”

FareSavers are to be eliminated Jan. 1, but there are concerns that if TransLink sticks to that timeline some riders may have to pay full fare while they wait to get Compass cards.

Provincial and federal government contributions cover about $70 million of the budgeted cost of the faregates and smart card system.

TransLink originally opposed installing faregates, arguing revenue recouped from fare evaders – up to $7 million a year – would never cover the costs.

But the system was mandated by then-Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon and TransLink planners decided smart card payments would bring many advantages.

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