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Council Rejects Resuming Cash Payments on Buses

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By Jorge Casuso

September 16, 2021 -- The City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to make it easier for Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus (BBB) riders to obtain fare passes but will continue barring them from paying cash.

The Council, however, directed the BBB to board passengers who don't have TAP cards or mobile tickets as the agency transitions to a cashless system officials say speeds up service and reduces health risks.

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre suggested handing passengers who only have cash free TAP cards they then then reload and use for future rides, an idea the Council embraced.

De la Torre and Councilmember Phil Brock had placed the item on the agenda calling for the transit system to accept cash -- which it discontinued two months ago -- or make it easier to obtain TAP cards ("Council to Consider Accepting Cash Fares on Buses Again," September 10, 2021).

The cashless system, Brock said, hurts seniors, the disabled and the homeless, as well as tourists unaware they must use alternate forms of payment.

"We need to make sure that the least of us always have access to public transit," Brock said.

His concern was echoed by all seven public speakers, including representatives of two neighborhood groups.

"It's important to do all we can to encourage transit use," said Tricia Crane, who heads Northeast Neighbors. The City, she said, "should make it easier to travel by bus, not harder.

"This use of technology can go too far."

Bill David called banning cash "a rushed technocratic decision" that is "criminalizing people who have American currency on them."

Several speakers said they knew of cases where passengers were turned away because they could only pay cash.

Eric O'Connor, the City's assistant director of transit, said that is not the agency's policy, although he added, "I'm not saying it never happens."

"We do not deny service," O'Connor said. "It's always been the case. If they don't have a means to pay, they can board the bus."

O'Connor said the cashless system saves the agency 9,000 hours a year (8,925 to be exact) by reducing boarding times.

Mayor Sue Himmelrich said that "moving away from cash could be a good thing," but added she doesn't "like the idea people feel left out."

Although the BBB's policy is not to turn customers away, the City must strike a balance between letting the public know and encouraging them to get free rides.

Brock suggested publicizing the policy in a press release, an idea Councilmember Gleam Davis rejected as sending the message, "Guess what, if you don't want to pay the fare you get on."

The Council voted to direct staff to make TAP cards more accessible by insuring outlets such as 7-Eleven, CVS and grocery chains make them readily available.

The agency also should inform customers that they can reload their tap cards by phone using their credit or debit cards or download the Transit app to purchase a ticket using a smart phone.

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