Regional transportation officials are studying the benefits of a unified fare card they say will make it easier for customers to pass from bus to train and back.

The results of the study, funded through a $100,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation, are expected as early as next month, but could take years to implement in southeast Michigan.

The goal, transportation officials say, is to allow riders to travel conveniently using the latest technological advances such as swipeless cards or a smartphone.

"Most major metropolitan areas have a way of people moving from one particular system to another, whether it's bus to rail or bus to bus to bus," said Cornelius Henry, a transportation specialist with the Detroit People Mover who is serving as the project manager for the fare card study.

"There's a convenient way of users transferring so that the customer can make a seamless integration so that it doesn't matter per se the system that you're coming from."

Transit officials say the timing couldn't be better with the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority for southeast Michigan and the ­ construction of Detroit's M-1 Rail streetcar for Woodward Avenue.

Eliminating different fare card systems would save the transportation agencies money, they say.

The fare card study began last summer and is being conducted by an engineering company that implemented fare cards in other cities. The report will be presented in two parts: one analyzing the existing fare systems and technology in placeas well as a comparison list of fare card uses in other cities and lessons learned.

If they decide to go to a universal fare card, the RTA will be in charge of implementing the change.

Michael Ford, the CEO of the RTA, said he doesn't have the details on how it would work in southeastern Michigan because the study is incomplete but that "coordinated fares and instruments are going to obviously be helpful for the user and for the operator."

"It will improve the boarding process and make that exchange quicker and more efficient," Ford said. "The ability to have a clear fare policy and a fare card system just helps regionally and locally between providers and uniformity. It makes it easier for passengers to navigate through the different systems. It should be seamless to them."

Transit authorities in cities like Chicago and San Francisco already offer contactless credit or debit cards to its customers.

Two bus systems — the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation — already have a joint "Regional Plus" fare card that allows DDOT riders to travel on SMART's line for a small fee.

"It's going to make it easier for our customers to go from one system to the next," said Dan Dirks, the head of DDOT, of a new fare card system. "Anything we can do to make it easier for our customers and for our drivers in particular is the better off we all are."

Dirks said that better coordination between services such as linking DDOT riders to the People Mover is critical to improving service to customers.

"The study is important because it's looking at what the needs of the different systems are," he said.

Henry said one important question to resolve is how the various agencies will share revenue with the fare card.

"You usually want to get that kind of stuff cleared up front," Henry said, "so that when you're discussing implementing a fare system like this, then you are also discussing the policies so that you don't have to come back later and try and make adjustments. One thing you always have to be concerned about is the fairness if you are moving people from one system to the other and who reaps the benefits."

Timothy Fischer, the chief administrative officer for M-1 Rail in Detroit, said officials of the light rail project slated for completion in the fall of 2016 are "interested and enthusiastic" about having the discussion of a streamlined fare card system.

"I think the study has gotten the conversation going and gotten the providers interested in talking with one another about how best to accomplish those goals," Fischer said. "From our end, we're very interested and enthusiastic about the one-card system that would really accomplish one of our missions.

"It's important for our success for passengers from other transit systems to be able to easily transfer from their system to our line. And that can best be accomplished through a one-card, streamlined policy."

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming

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