- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006


Transit tokens have jingled in the pockets of Bostonians since 1837, from the silver-colored coins of the horse-drawn Roxbury Coach to the worn brass discs thathavebeen plunked into MBTA turnstiles since 1951. But soon, in the city that is home to the nation’s first subway, where folk singers have rhapsodized about public transportation, tokens won’t be good for a ride.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has announced that the $1.25 token will be phased out early next year, making way for fare cards.

“I think there is certainly something symbolic in the passing of the token,” said transit system General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas, who has ordered his set of commemorative token cuff links.

“There will be nostalgia,” he said. “But I think there will also be excitement with the bold new technological adventure ahead.”

A $200 million automated fare-collection system will allow entry with the swipe of a card, rather than the drop of a token. Boston, which calls its subway the “T” and has the country’s fifth-busiest transit system, is following the lead of other major cities.

Chicago killed its token on May 31, 1999. The New York Times ran an obituary for the Big Apple’s 50-year-old subway token on the last day it could be used in turnstiles — March 14, 2003.

“Tokens are not very sophisticated,” said Tom Parker, a manager for San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit System who heads a task force at the American Public Transportation Association to promote the fare cards.

Advocates argue that the paper cards reduce fraud, allow the flexibility to charge different fares for various lengths of travel and reduce turnstile maintenance by eliminating moving parts.

As for the advantages of the token, Mr. Parker said: “I can’t think of any. In the United States, tokens are being phased out of every large market.”

Bradley H. Clarke, president of the Boston Street Railway Association, disagrees.

“Tokens were as revolutionary a technology change in their day as electronic fare collection is today,” said Mr. Clarke, who has written several books on public transportation. “Instead of fishing in your pocket for two dimes and a nickel, you just had to find a single coin.”

About 12,000 types of transit tokens have been minted in the United States and Canada, said the Rev. John M. Coffee Jr., editor of the Fare Box, a monthly newsletter for transportation-token collectors. Three hundred to 400 are still in use in smaller cities and towns, he said.

Since 1837, 10 distinct tokens have been minted in Boston, from the cutout B on the coins for the old elevated railway to the gold-finished commemorative millennium tokens pressed by the MBTA in 2000, Mr. Clarke said.

The Massachusetts Transportation Authority, forerunner of the MBTA, introduced its first token on Nov. 10, 1951. Five versions of the 20-millimeter brass coin have been minted since, and all of them would be good for a ride in today’s turnstiles.

Even now, with the paper cards already in use at some stations, the MBTA says it sells an average of 4.5 million tokens a month. By early next year, all of those brass coins will be worthless, relegated to the cracks between couch cushions, junk drawers and the world of numismatics.

Even for those collectors, Boston’s plentiful little relics will have little value.

“After that, I’d say they are maybe worth a quarter,” Mr. Coffee said. “I don’t know any collector who needs them.”

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