Putting a man on the moon used to be the standard of comparison for seemingly simple technologies that had yet to be developed.
"They can put a man on the moon, why can't they make a squeeze ketchup bottle?"
"They can put a man on the moon, why can't they make a car you can start in the wintertime without leaving your living room?"
Now, we have squeeze ketchup bottles, of course, and remote-starting automobiles and a host of other amazing inventions whose appearance beneath moon walking on mankind's hierarchy of needs confused and annoyed us. And, to be sure, walking on the moon itself is hardly the technological marvel we once considered it to be. It's been four decades, after all, since we even had any interest in going there.
So, what do we use now as our standard for technological genius? Should it be Amazon.com's plans to deliver shampoo and shaving cream via drone? Google's self-driving car?
How about Portillo's ability to plant a high school student in the restaurant parking lot to take and relay orders and collect payments as customers drive slowly by making selections from a vast and diverse menu of lunch and dinner options?
Yes, let's try that. We see it every day, in all kinds of climate conditions. And yet -- and here we get to the meat of the issue at hand -- Metra, CTA and Pace still can't come up with a single card that commuters can use to buy rides interchangeably on the region's mass transit system.
Don't fault Pace and CTA too much. Three years after Gov. Pat Quinn signed state legislation requiring a universal fare card system for all three agencies -- and despite an original rollout not unlike that of the troubled signup system for the Affordable Care Act -- these two agencies at least are about to fully implement a system allowing customers to pay for rides by waving a single contactless Ventra card in front of an electronic reader.
Metra, however, as detailed by transportation writer Marni Pyke this week, seems almost disinterested in compatibility with the Ventra card. The agency does expect to have a system in place by Jan. 1 -- a deadline imposed by the legislation -- allowing riders with smartphones to pay from their credit card, debit card or even Ventra accounts. But as for the simple Ventra card itself and riders who don't have smartphones? That is, as for the universal fare card called for in the legislation?
"After that, we'll evaluate what the next steps will be," a Metra executive told Pyke.
It seems to us that lawmakers made clear what the single step should be, and it is as sensible as a squeeze ketchup bottle -- a single card that a consumer can use to ride whichever means of mass transportation he or she chooses.
We are not, we confess, rocket scientists. We can't begin to understand what it takes to put a person on the moon or to produce a driverless automobile. But we still can't help wondering whether just a little sense of urgency on Metra's part couldn't soon integrate the rail agency with the rest of the regional transportation network for a system of payment that's at least as easy as buying a beef sandwich.