Charlie Tickets, Cards To Replace T Tokens

If you are hoping to catch the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) state-of-the-art Silver Line shuttle to Logan International Airport this weekend, you can pay the bus driver with cash, coins, or the traditional T token.

But if you were hoping to use that familiar brass T token to take the Blue Line back from the airport, you’re out of luck.

That’s because as of May 17, the Blue Line’s Airport and Aquarium stops became the MBTA’s first stations to replace the token-operated turnstiles with automated gates. The new technology will feature “CharlieTickets”—magnetic-striped paper tickets, cast in the mold of New York City’s MetroCards—and “CharlieCards”, more durable plastic “smart cards” with integrated circuitry that are geared towards daily commuters. (Existing monthly and weekly passes will work, too).

But the new Charlie gimcracks, which can store money for multiple trips and function much like debit cards, don’t yet work at any other point in the MBTA’s system—including the Silver Line extension to the airport, which opened a month ago.

If everything goes according to plan, however, MBTA officials say that by the time the Harvard Class of 2011 arrives on campus, the ubiquitous T token—which has existed in one form or another since the 1830s—will be merely a vestige of the past.

“If you lived in Boston all your life, and left for two years and came back and rode the T, you would be amazed,” said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

The T’s $140-million plan for shifting to token-less travel calls for the replacement of all the turnstiles in its over 60 stations within the next 24 months.

NEXT STOP, WONDERLAND?

The elimination of tokens will improve far more than one’s experience getting from a station’s entrance to the platform, the MBTA claims.

Pesaturo said that automatic CharlieCard and CharlieTicket vending machines would allow MBTA employees—who currently dispense tokens from behind bulletproof glass—to leave their booths to become customer service agents and security officers.

He said anyone “would be hard-pressed to find a transit agency in this country” with the T’s planned mix of automatic fares, rider-friendly employees, and centralized security centers.

But Randy Vanderhoof, the director of the New Jersey-based Smart Card Alliance, a not-for-profit that advocates the application of smart cards across the country, says that the technology used for the CharlieTicket system has been available for nearly 50 years.

“Although it’s very low cost, it’s also low security and low reliability, and has a limited extended-use capability,” Vanderhoof said of the magnetic-striped tickets.

CharlieCards—which don’t need to be swiped through a machine, only held close to a sensor—were pioneered in the late 1970s in France, Vanderhoof added. Washington, D.C. became the first major American city to adopt them, in 1999.

David Luberoff, the executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Kennedy School of Government, welcomed the change, but said that the MBTA also must to address other more pressing issues, like fixing escalators, if it wants to maintain its riders’ trust.

“It’s a positive step forward. Is it going to change the world? No. It should allow the MBTA to operate a little more efficiently,” Luberoff said.

And although a customer poll on the MBTA’s own website indicated that a majority of visitors thought the next station slated to accept CharlieTickets and CharlieCards would be South Station, Pesaturo said that, in fact, Wonderland, the north terminus of the Blue Line, is next in line for conversion to the new system.

“[We will] work our way into downtown until we have the whole Blue Line in the fall,” Pesaturo said.

The Red and Orange Lines will follow in a similar fashion, with the most distant stations being converted before more central ones.

For Harvard students hoping to use CharlieTickets and CharlieCards at the Square’s station along the Red Line, that means waiting until long after the summer is over. Conversion to the automated system will start with Alewife in the north, which is three stops beyond Harvard Square.

—Staff writer Brendan R. Linn can be reached at blinn@fas.harvard.edu.