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Modernized transit fare system on track for Port Authority

| Monday, Sept. 17, 2012
Commuters walk past the new ConnectCard vending machines at the North Side T Station, Friday, September 14th, 2012. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

Port Authority of Allegheny County's plan to roll out its $33 million electronic fare collection system to its largest groups of riders in the fall remains on track despite “minor bumps” in the system's last major test, a spokesman said.

“We have not had any glaring issues,” Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said of the ongoing ConnectCard pilot program involving 350 volunteers with varied riding habits from across the transit agency's service area.

Ritchie said some participants in the program, which began a month ago and continues through mid-October, have complained about shortcomings such as not being able to pay for transfers with their ConnectCard; card-reader delays after other customers pay with cash; and confusion about how to use ConnectCard vending machines. The concerns are being addressed, he said.

ConnectCard allows riders to tap prepaid plastic cards on electronic readers to pay fares for buses, the T light-rail system and the Monongahela Incline. Riders will continue to be able to pay cash.

ConnectCard users can transfer money onto the cards at vending machines and the authority's Downtown service center. Ultimately, they'll be able to do so online and at Giant Eagle and other stores, although Port Authority hasn't said when.

“It's ridiculously easy to use. It's been really great, as far as I'm concerned,” said pilot program participant Mike Crane, 28, of Monroeville.

Crane said he has two minor complaints: vending machines don't say which way cards should be inserted to add money, and it can take electronic readers on fare boxes 10 to 15 seconds to accept a ConnectCard payment after someone pays with cash.

“It's OK, but it could be better,” said Frank Pilone, 39, of Troy Hill, another participant.

Pilone cited the delay in using ConnectCard after another customer pays with cash, and complained about being unable to buy transfers with his card or manage his account online.

Still, Pilone said, “It's an improvement.”

Ritchie said Port Authority officials are finalizing plans to open the system to remaining riders, including monthly and weekly pass holders, and cash-paying customers. It will determine when to start selling cards at stores and offer online card management, and whether it might lower fares for ConnectCard holders to boost usage, similar to how the Pennsylvania Turnpike offers lower toll rates for E-ZPass customers.

In addition to the pilot participants, about 40,000 University of Pittsburgh students and employees began using ConnectCard a year ago, and 625 annual pass holders have switched to the program since March.

Since 2010, Port Authority has had a $1.2 million contract with a joint venture of Downtown-based FSC Marketing Communications and Atlanta-based Jones Worley Transit Marketing to advertise the ConnectCard system and educate riders on its use.

Through the contract, FSC-Jones Worley and Port Authority have printed and distributed flyers about the system, produced online videos and sent mailers and email blasts to promote the new cards, Ritchie said.

Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said he expects ConnectCard to boost revenues by 5 percent to 10 percent through improved fare collection. Port Authority collects about $76 million a year from fare boxes now, so that would result in as much as $7.6 million in added revenue for the cash-strapped agency.

Bland has said ConnectCard should reduce expenses, including $300,000 a year in money-handling costs and $140,000 annually to print paper passes.

Staff writer Matthew Santoni contributed to this report. Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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