Almost the currency of the past

BOSTON –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 that have been plunked into MBTA turnstiles since 1951.

But soon, in the city that is home to America’s first subway, where folk singers have rhapsodized about public transportation, tokens won’t be good for a ride.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently announced that the $1.25 token will be phased out in early 2007, 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 already 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.”

The new $200 million automated fare collection system will allow entry with the swipe of card, rather than the drop of a token. Boston, which calls its subway the “T” and has the country’s fifth busies 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 its 50-year-old subway token on the last day it could 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 cut down on fraud, allow the flexibility to charge different fares for different length trips, and reduce turnstile maintenance by eliminating moving parts.

As for the advantages of the token, 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 Clarke, who has written nine books on public transportation. “Instead of fishing in your pocket for two dimes and a nickel, you just had to find a single coin.”

There been have about 12,000 different transit tokens minted in the United States and Canada, said 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, there have been 10 distinct tokens 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, Clarke said.

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

Even now, with the new paper cards already in use at some stations, the MBTA says it sells an average of 4.5 million tokens a month.

But 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, who collect tokens, coins and medals.

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

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

(via boston.com)

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