Quinn signs Chicago-area universal fare card bill

Suburban commuters transferring from Metra to CTA or Pace to Metra know the frustration of having to provide separate fares.

But by 2015, the region's three transit agencies should offer a seamless way to ride with a universal pass system.

For riders who use CTA, Metra and Pace, the idea is a no-brainer.

“Love it,” Cathleen Kelly of Elk Grove Village said Thursday at the Charles J. Zettek Transportation Center in Schaumburg. “I work all over the area and transfer from Pace to CTA. This will make my life a lot easier.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” said Hung Chin Fang, who commutes from his home in Wilmette to his job in Schaumburg.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation requiring a universal fare system Thursday. It would allow riders to use credit or debit cards or prepaid cards on all transit systems effective Jan. 1, 2015.

The law also mandates that Metra provide web-based, real-time train arrival information, which the Chicago Transit Authority currently does, and offer free Wi-Fi provided it can at no cost to the agency.

In addition, it directs the Regional Transportation Authority to study the cost and feasibility of having free Wi-Fi on all buses and trains and the need for Metra to provide defibrillators on trains.

The idea of a universal fare card has been around for years but getting all three agencies on board hasn't been easy and former administrations at Metra balked at updating technology.

“Now it's the law and everyone will work toward that date,” RTA deputy executive director of communications Diane Palmer said. “This is obviously a key priority for the RTA.”

Because Metra has a distance-based, open system where riders can get on trains without paying first and conductors collect fares on board, there are some logistical issues to figure out regarding universal cards, senior director of media relations Judy Pardonnet said.

“We're dedicated to working with the RTA to come up with a way riders can move seamlessly between systems,” she said.

Metra staff are already reviewing bids from companies to install Wi-Fi systems with the caveat it come at no cost. That could mean allowing the company that provides the free service to advertise on trains as a trade-off, Pardonnet said.

Regarding real-time train arrival information, Metra bought GPS units that will allow it to meet that goal by July 2012.

Pace officials said they support a universal fare system.

“We already have full integration of our electronic fare equipment with the CTA and the PlusBus pass has been a simple, low-cost solution to integrate our monthly passes with Metra,” spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.

“We don't foresee any challenges on our end moving to a universal fare system and are looking forward to working with the other agencies.”