Officials hopeful about new payment system for buses

A student flashes their UPASS and Marquette ID to enter the bus. Photo by Eise Krivit/elise.krivit@marquette.edu

Milwaukee County Transit System hopes the transition to a new “smart card” system for collecting fares, to be implemented in the next two years, will weed out fraud and lead to a more efficient system.

County buses will feature a new smart card system in about two years, with paper transfer slips still being used until then and being phased out over a one- to two-year period following the implementation of the smart card.

County Board spokesman Harold Mester said the county hopes the smart cards will help avoid many of the problems the paper system has presented.

“There has been concern about fraud, such as passing paper transfer slips to other passengers,” Mester said. “We hope modernization really reduces that.”

The new cards will have their value encoded within them and passengers will be able to pay their fare by swiping the card.

“The cards will have electronic chips and all the information will be on the card,” Mester said.

Plans for the smart card system began almost three years ago when the county was awarded a $7 million federal stimulus grant, with transit officials revealing the project in April 2009 and saying they expected to award a contract for the new system by July 2010. Leaders in the bus drivers union, who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January that at least 5,000 of the 30,000 paper slips issued daily were used fraudulently, have not appreciated the long wait.

With fares sitting at $2.25 for the standard adult rate, the estimated 5,000 fraudulent slips would add up to about $11,000 lost revenue per day, according to the Journal Sentinel article.

Richard Robinson, a Marquette associate professor of marketing, said the new system may not solve all those problems.

“The growing set of issues will not be resolved to everyone’s benefit,” Robinson said.

Robinson, whose expertise is in transportation, said he understands why the transition has taken so long and, unlike the union, is comfortable with the transitional process.

“Adopting and implementing the smart card system involves radical change,” Robinson said. “Mitigating potential fraud is a daunting challenge.”

Firms are currently bidding for the custom design of the card, but according to Mester that information is not yet available.

The current farebox system has been in place for 26 years.