Pace joins CTA in universal fare system

Commuters who use both Pace and CTA know what a pain it can be to deal with separate fare systems.

But a new deal between the agencies will not only provide an uninterrupted transfer but enable riders to jump on Pace buses and CTA trains with a wave of their credit card or smartphone.

Pace directors Wednesday approved an intergovernmental agreement with the Chicago Transit Authority coordinating an open fare system for both.

“It's the dawn of a universal fare card,” Pace chief counsel Thomas Ciecko said.

“This will allow customers using the CTA and Pace to have a seamless fare system,” Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross said.

The CTA and then Pace anticipate introducing the new technology in late 2013. Essentially, it will mean that commuters can pay for rides and transfer from one system to the other using a transit card that will include the CTA and Pace logos. Or they can use credit or debit cards, smartphones and certain types of prepaid cards to access transit.

Eventually, the new system will replace Pace's existing fare cards. Cash will still be accepted.

The change will allow people to purchase fare cards at 2,500 venues across Chicago and the suburbs as opposed to about 800 now.

The move has come after some prodding from Springfield. The region's three transit agencies were mandated by the Illinois legislature to offer a universal fare system by 2015.

The CTA has contracted with Cubic Transportation Systems to implement the program and the company will also work with Pace.

It will cost Pace nearly $55 million over 10 years to pay for the switchover as well as annual operating expenses. About $14 million is for capital costs to convert fare collection points. Cubic will handle processing of all fare cards, which includes dealing with customers.

Pace officials were still working out financing but they noted that the agency will save money spent on fare collections. It's estimated 90 percent of all fares will eventually be paid by automated card versus 60 percent now.

Cubic conducted a similar transition for San Francisco's transit systems.

“Our region will benefit from what Cubic learned from rolling this out in other places,” Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.

Riders will be updated on changes to expect and how to prepare as the switch gets closer.

“There will be an intensive marketing process so people know this is coming ... and what they need to do,” Wilmot said.

For example, riders should note that for the system to work, credit and debit cards will require an embedded “smart chip” that can be read at fare boxes and collection points.

Meanwhile, Metra's leap to universal fares will come later.

The commuter rail agency is working with Pace and the CTA on the issue, spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reile said.

She added, “Metra does not currently use electronic fare collection while the CTA and Pace have had more than a decade of electronic collection experience and the infrastructure to support it.” Complicating matters is the fact the Metra is an “open” system, where anyone can walk onto a train with an upfront payment.

Metra is supposed to complete a universal fare development plan by August and request companies to submit proposals at the end of the year.

“We tentatively plan to begin implementation testing in June 2013 with the goal of implementing a system by January 2015,” Thomas-Reile said.

A transit brouhaha that erupted in the last two weeks also surfaced at Wednesday's Pace meeting. Regional Transportation Authority Chairman John S. Gates wrote a May 25 memo that faulted the CTA, Metra and Pace for delays regarding consolidating operations to save money. The three agencies fired back accusing the RTA of a bloated bureaucracy.

Referencing the friction, Pace Chairman Richard Kwasneski quipped, “an intergovernmental agreement ... what a novel idea.”

He suggested that the meeting agenda be sent to the RTA, noting, “this is a prime example of how the CTA and Pace work together. Our staffs have been working on this for over a year.”

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