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RTA study expected to back universal fare card

Leonard Fleming

The Regional Transit Authority officials are wrapping up a study that will help them develop a universal fare card that can be used by the Detroit Department of Transportation, SMART and future M-1 Rail riders.

Discussions have been ongoing for nearly a year to bring agencies under one fare card that makes it easier for customers to travel from bus to rail and back and to share revenues.

The study is expected to show the various transit providers how using a swipeless card or smartphone technology would end up benefiting commuters and help their agencies save money. Still, RTA officials acknowledge, it might take years to fully implement and secure a funding source.

Michael Ford, the CEO of the RTA, said he recognizes that there are going to be challenges to get various agencies to agree on sharing profits and adopting changes but is optimistic that they all can work together.

“A regional fare card is something that’s needed,” Ford said. “It makes using the system much easier and effective. We start with that basic understanding. But we can get there. We all see the value in it and we see what other systems do. And we’re just long overdue.”

RTA officials said one option is spending $6 to $8 million for the most basic universal fare card. The preferred option, they say, is an “open fare” system that allows riders to utilize a smartphone or credit card to the tune of $16 to $22 million.

The proposal, if approved by the RTA board, is expected to be part of the authority’s regional master plan which will be unveiled late this year. Transit officials are looking at possible grants to help manage costs but more than likely would be placed in the RTA’s 2016 tax increase proposal

But even though the idea to integrate services is a good one, some like John Hertel, SMART’s general manager, said he needs to know how much this will cost SMART before he endorses it.

“We have been wholeheartedly and eager to support and participate in this because the concept is positive one of integration,” Hertel said. “In terms of the final implementation ... is it going to cost us anything in terms of income? We’re operating on such a thin margin. We are not allowed to have deficit spending. Depending on what the final proposal is, it will go to my board and they will make a final decision.”

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