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Port Authority flat fare proposal would limit headaches

| Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Cecilia Lamm of Shaler, left, and Nancy Hendrickson of Brookline, use ConnectCard terminals at Gateway Station, Downtown, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Cecilia Lamm of Shaler, left, and Nancy Hendrickson of Brookline, use ConnectCard terminals at Gateway Station, Downtown, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.

Traveling from his home in Coraopolis to Downtown Pittsburgh sends 26-year-old Brayon Branch scrambling for spare change. He needs three $1 bills and three quarters to pay one of the most expensive bus fares in the country to make the 26-minute, 13-mile trip.

“It's almost $5 to get on a bus,” Branch said of the fare for the outer suburbs of Allegheny County, known as Zone 2. Waiting for a bus on Stanwix Street on Monday morning, he brightened when he learned that this time next year, bus fare might cost him $2.50, provided he uses a re-loadable ConnectCard instead of cash. “That would make it a lot better,” Branch said.

Port Authority of Allegheny County is trying to persuade riders to use the card by charging them $2.50 instead of the $2.75 cash user pay. It would eliminate the $3.75 outer suburbs fare.

Going “cashless” is a nationwide trend for transit agencies seeking to limit the headaches of handling money at the fare box. ConnectCards started in 2012, and planners envisioned a regional system in which riders could use the same card to travel across county lines.

Fayette Area Coordinated Transit rolled out ConnectCards for its riders in December 2014. Director Lori Groover-Smith said while cashless doesn't work for all residents, the cards are convenient for commuters. About 17 percent of riders used ConnectCards in January.

“I don't see us ever going totally cashless,” she said. “Most people with us use ConnectCards for the monthly bus pass.”

John Paul, executive director at the Butler Transit Authority, said the agency will begin using ConnectCards in April.

“The biggest benefit from our standpoint is it eliminates making change at the terminal,” Paul said. “It should speed up entry onto the vehicle, therefore keeping the vehicles on time.”

In Allegheny County, about 70 percent of users use ConnectCards, which is faster and simpler, authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said.

The Port Authority board will consider the fare proposal in June along with the annual budget. The proposal includes day passes, requiring payment upon boarding and eliminating the free fare zone for buses.

James Moore, a transportation professor at the University of Southern California who has studied cashless fare systems, said more agencies are making the switch. Seattle has the ORCA card. Atlanta's MARTA has the Breeze card. Chicago has the Ventra card.

Investing in a cashless system can spare agencies the cost of armored trucks and money counters, Moore said. In Pittsburgh, Port Authority has a contract with Brinks for cash handling that the board will consider renewing for $3.45 million for three years of service this Friday.

“If you replace all of that with electronic funds transfer, you're taking a lot of people and a lot of hardware and a lot of potential hardware failure out of the system,” Moore said.

ConnectCards come with their own costs. Each card is 80 cents to produce, but the proposal would recoup that plus some by charging $2 for new cards. Port Authority spends $52,000 for the ticket vending machine, $3,000 for installation and about $7,500 a year in maintenance, with plans to install more if the new fare proposal goes through.

In Westmoreland County, investing in the ConnectCard hardware and software cost $620,000, with the agency carrying 20 percent of the cost, said director of fixed route services Lori Brkovich. The agency hopes to start the system this calendar year, Brkovich said.

“I think it'll be a benefit to people who are using multiple systems,” she said.

John Holl, 32, of Moon rides Port Authority buses five days a week to get to work Downtown. He's gotten into the habit of reloading his ConnectCard using the online system started last year, although he checks it at the ticket vending machines after experiencing glitches.

Holl said the cashless fare system is convenient. “I think it's a good idea,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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