Beginning Thursday, the Utah Transit Authority will collect fares electronically using new readers installed on its 520 buses and 35 TRAX and FrontRunner rail platforms.
The readers for the system, which cost $10 million to install, can deduct fares from credit cards with contactless chip technologies. The readers can also validate prepaid cards such as student identification cards and electronic passes, said Jerry Carpenter, UTA public relations specialist.
Passengers with the credit cards, student IDs and electronic passes "tap on" and "tap off" when boarding and exiting transportation by holding cards within two inches of the reader, Carpenter said.
When the reader glows green, the passengers can proceed onto the bus or train. When it glows yellow, additional action is required, such as paying for an upgraded service, Carpenter said.
If the reader glows red, the card is invalid or has been disabled. If students with passes fail to tap off after departing transportation three times, their cards will be suspended.
"It's really important for credit-card holders to tap off," Carpenter said. "If they tap off, they get a transfer window of two hours, which means they can board another service and tap on without getting charged again. If they went to a premium service or a higher service, it would charge them the difference, like if they went to an express bus from a regular bus."
For now, the readers will only deduct, from credit cards, single adult cash fares — $2.25 for TRAX and local buses, $5 for express buses and $3.50 for FrontRunner plus 50 cents to each additional station. Fares for low-income people, seniors and disabled people will be integrated into the system later in 2009.
The hefty price-tag for the readers' installation included what Carpenter described as a "state-of-the-art communication system" in which real-time data about where and when people enter and exit buses and trains will be communicated to UTA headquarters.
That data, Carpenter said, will help the quasi-public, quasi-private agency determine future schedules and routes. UTA also hopes to someday use the communications system to help passengers obtain information about transfers by dialing from their cell phones to get the status of their next bus or train, Carpenter said.
University of Utah senior Erica Dzierzon said she knows little about the new system, which UTA calls Electronic Fare Collection. "What is the tap-on/tap-off thing? There is horrible advertisement for it," said Dzierzon, who rides TRAX from campus to her job downtown. "The only way I know is what's written on my pass."
While the extra effort may discourage students and others from tapping on or off, UTA doesn't think people will skip payment or verification any more than they do now.
"It's a concern people will not perform the behavior," Carpenter said. Even so, he added, "by having full-trip data, we can see where people are boarding and where people are exiting."
UTA police will be given "handheld readers to make sure the card was validated prior to boarding," Carpenter said.