The Chicago area's regional transportation systems have until 2015 to develop a universal transit fare system commuters could use across three different schemes under legislation signed into law last week.

The challenge for the agencies involved is to view one another as a single system to develop an efficient payment platform.

In general, regional transportation systems seeking to unify fare-collection systems must "invest in interoperable transit-fare technology that works across multiple transit platforms, such as buses, trains, subways and shared parking lots," Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, says.

The technology should accept payment methods "that each person carries in their pocket today or will soon have available in their mobile phone," he adds.

The Regional Transportation Authority in Illinois appears headed down that road.

Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed legislation July 7 that requires the Chicago Transit Authority, commuter rail system Metra and suburban bus system Pace to develop the universal fare card. The Regional Transportation Authority oversees the systems.

The bill requires the authority to develop a system that enables commuters to use contactless credit, debit and prepaid cards.

The regional authority helped draft the legislation and already was working with the transit agencies on a new system, John S. Gates Jr., the organization's chairman, said in a statement.

"An open fare payment will help attract riders because the system will be more convenient while allowing seamless transfers across the system," Gates said. "We also expect that it will help maximize use of the system."

The authority also predicts the new system will lead to advertising opportunities, he added.

Officials were unavailable for further comment by deadline.

The Chicago Transit Authority already uses a contactless closed-loop card and is in the process of developing an open-loop electronic fare-collection system that would accept contactless card and mobile payments. Chicago’s system also supports a magnetic stripe card and cash.

Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority have interoperable fare-collection systems already, but the Metra train service uses conductors on trains to punch prepaid fare cards or check monthly passes for each rider. And Metra only began to accept debit and credit cards for purchases of fare cards and passes in 2010.

Vanderhoof says separate transit fare payments technologies in urban areas where a majority of regular riders are using multiple transit operators is "terrible for riders and inefficient for transit operators whose job is to transport passengers safely and cost effectively and not to be in the fare collection and ticket distribution business."

The Smart Card Alliance has long supported the concept of open-loop contactless transit payment card systems. Earlier this year, the organization's transportation council announced it would continue to press for such systems in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as they seek to adopt open-fare systems.

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