San Francisco to Award Universal Transportation Ticket System

The nine-county San Francisco Bay area is poised to become the nation's first metropolitan region to offer a universal transit ticket for use on all of its transit systems -- including buses, trains, ferries, taxis, parking lots and even public telephones.

The area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is expected to award this week a 10-year contract worth more than $110 million to a consortium led by Motorola Inc.

The proposed TransLink system will use smart card technology, which allows transit riders to purchase a plastic card embedded with a computer chip that they can load with a cash amount, stored rides or time-period passes. Riders need only to flash the card in front of an electronic reader located on transit vehicles, in stations and at fare gates, and the correct fare value is automatically deducted from the card.

TransLink will be able to factor in many variables when calculating fares, including different fare structures for every transit operator, transfers, routes, length of trips, time of day and discounts for senior, elderly and disabled riders. A similar smart-card-based universal transit ticket system already is being used in Hong Kong and Seoul, South Korea.

"TransLink could provide the kind of seamless access to all Bay area transit that riders want," said MTC executive director Lawrence Dahms, who noted that a recent random phone survey of Bay area residents turned up a universal transit ticket as the most desired transit improvement. "It would mean no more having to carry exact change, waiting in line to buy tickets or keeping track of complicated fare structures."

If MTC awards the contract, the Motorola team would get started this fall with a six-month demonstration of the system on selected routes of several transit providers, including Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, San Francisco Muni and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. It may include testing at several downtown parking garages.

Upon completing the demonstration, the MTC and transit operators would vote on whether to proceed with a full roll-out of the system. Barring any major problems, Dahms believes the regional system could be fully operational by 2001.

He added that although TransLink is designed to benefit transit riders, transit agencies also will find the system advantageous. A central computer system would handle all transactions and distribute payments to transit agencies daily, for example, and the area's overwhelming rush hour congestion would be eased a bit as passenger boarding of transit vehicles and through fare gates would be faster with a TransLink card.

What's more, Dahms noted, "since the system will record every transaction, agencies will have a comprehensive database for planning services, marketing and financial accounting."

-- Heather Hayes (hbhayes@cfw.com)

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