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New, speedier bus service has curbside fare boxes

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BY Terese Loeb Kreuzer

The New York City Department of Transportation and New York City Transit undoubtedly scheduled the inauguration of the M15 Select Bus Service between the South Ferry and 125th Street for a holiday weekend in order to enable a gentle rollout and avoid harried commuters, late for work. But still, there was some New York grumbling and some confusion.

As of 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 10, the M15 Select Bus Service replaced the M15 Limited on First and Second Avenues, supplementing the M15 local buses, which will continue running as usual. The M15 Select Bus Service operates daily from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. The local service runs 24 hours a day.

What was new for most passengers using the M15 Select Bus Service were the curbside fare boxes, which accept both Metrocards and cash. Passengers must pay before boarding the bus. The fare boxes dispense a receipt, good for one hour from the time of purchase. There is no interaction with the bus driver unless the passenger has paid cash and needs a transfer.

“The whole idea is to speed up service by paying before you get on the bus,” MTA transportation planner Joseph V. Chiarmonte told Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee a few days prior to the roll out.

North of Houston Street, dedicated bus lanes will also speed up service, Chiarmonte said. Drivers must stay out of the bus lanes except to turn right at the next corner or to quickly drop off or pick up passengers. Those who disobey can incur fines of up to $150.

Transportation planners believe the trip between South Ferry and 125th Street, which now takes around an hour and a half, should be 15 to 20 minutes shorter under the new system. They say it will still be shorter in 2011 or 2012 when the buses will be outfitted with technology that will cue green lights to stay on a few seconds longer, or red lights, a few seconds less, to enable faster passage through intersections.

However, speed comes at a price. On the first day of the new service, some passengers saw the bus coming and dashed for it, not realizing that they needed to pay first. MTA employees at every stop were there to head them off, explaining how the curbside fare boxes work — and at least for that day, getting the buses to wait a few moments so that the passengers could pay and board. As a rule, the buses won’t wait for passengers.

“During peak hours, the bus will be running every four to five minutes,” said Chiarmonte. “The idea is that it’s going to operate a lot like the subway. The subway doesn’t wait for people, and the buses won’t either. There will be another bus shortly thereafter. Between peak periods the bus should come at six to eight minute intervals.”

MTA employees will be at each stop for the first week. On Sunday afternoon, Peggy Bostic was stationed on Water Street near Fulton.

“Most people seem okay with the fare boxes,” Bostic said. “Some told me that they’re doing this in Europe and it works fine there.”

But one woman who asked not to be identified remarked, “When they do this in other countries, half the time, people don’t pay. This should be interesting.”

To catch fare evaders, there will be a crew of fare inspectors who will board buses at random, asking to see receipts; anyone without a receipt can be fined up to $100.

Both the C.B.1 members and passengers waiting at the Water and Fulton Street bus stop had many questions — and their questions were similar. “How will the fare boxes be maintained? What will happen when they break down?” C.B.1 member Catherine McVay Hughes wondered.

“We have a crew that works full time maintaining these machines — and there are two Metrocard machines at every stop,” Chiarmonte observed. “These are brand new machines. They have wireless communications so if there is any sort of issue with them – if they break or run out of paper – they will send a message to our maintenance folks.”

Curbside fare boxes similar to those for the M15 Select Bus Service have been used on the BX 12 line on Fordham Road in the Bronx since June 2008, and apparently have worked well.

“We are looking to use this system on other bus routes but it may not be the identical technology because fare collection technology is always changing,” said Chiarmonte.