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August/September 2000

TransLink® to Make Fare Collection a Snap

TransLinkIn offices overlooking Oakland's Lake Merritt, two dozen employees of Motorola, Inc. are working tirelessly to design the future: a universal transit fare collection system for the Bay Area. Halfway around the world, 30 technicians in Perth, Australia, are building hardware and software for the smart card system under the auspices of ERG Limited.

These two teams are working on TransLink®, the MTC-sponsored project that could revolutionize how travelers pay for public transit in the Bay Area.

"We're looking forward to testing whether the system will live up to all our expectations, and be able to do all the innovative things we have hoped and planned for," said Russell Driver, TransLink® project manager for MTC.

MTC and Motorola are now working on the nitty-gritty details for the system's demonstration, such as the physical location of the fare-reader machines on buses, in rail stations and at ferry docks.

"We're moving ahead at full speed to meet the start date," said Mark Seker, Motorola's communications director for the project.

With one credit card-like ticket, travelers will be able to pay fares on multiple operators. Thanks to an antenna embedded in the card, the fare collection will be "contactless," which means the card needs only to be waved close to the reader for the correct fare, including any transfer discounts or zone fares, to be deducted automatically from the card's balance. A microchip in the card will keep track of the card's balance, or, when the card is used as a monthly pass, the dates the pass is valid.

TransLink® money transactions will be processed through a dedicated bank card-like system that will be run by Motorola from a new complex in Concord.

When a passenger waves the card near a reader, the card's current balance will be displayed. Transit riders will have the option of adding value to the cards at ATM-type machines and retail locations, or by linking the card to a bank or credit account.

"Transportation fare payment is only one application of smart card technology," said Seker. "Obviously, the system can do much more than extract fares."

For example, added Driver, "Employee benefits programs, where employers provide transit subsidies for their workers, can be handled automatically through TransLink®, and we're talking with the San Francisco Parking and Traffic Department about possibly using TransLink® cards at new parking meters."

The design phase of the TransLink® project is almost complete and the build phase, during which the demonstration machines will be placed on platforms and in buses, is warming up. The project is now on target for a spring 2001 rollout, when about 5,000 transit passengers will be selected to test the system on six different operators: AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, San Francisco Muni and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Not every transit vehicle or station on those six systems will be equipped with TransLink® fare readers during the demonstration, so "finding transit riders who regularly use the selected routes will be crucial," said Driver.

"The disabled and elderly communities in particular will be heavily recruited for the test to ensure that the system is absolutely accessible," he added.

The demonstration will last for six months. After a thorough evaluation and a decision to go forward, regionwide deployment could begin in early 2002.
-- Patrick Runkle