Serving millions of commuters is a big job, especially in a state like Utah. Most of the populace is concentrated in urban areas, and the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) serves six counties over 1,400 square miles, including Salt Lake County, which was home to more than 1 million people in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The authority deployed a handy payment system to speed fare payment and collection - a system that may be the future of public transportation as we know it.

In January 2009, the UTA announced its electronic fare collection (EFC) system that allows patrons to pass "contactless" smart cards over electronic readers when boarding buses, and train or light rail cars, eliminating the need to pay drivers in person or flash passes. A chip in the card transmits a signal when it's close to the reader.

"The ability to have a card with this technology and be able to board a vehicle, tap a reader and get on makes things a lot more convenient for the customer. It allows them to board more quickly," said Craig Roberts, manager of technology program development for the UTA. "It allows us to collect a lot of information about ridership and trip patterns."

The UTA markets its EFC deployment as a "tap on, tap off" system - riders tap their card against a reader when they board and exit. Buses have card readers at each door, and card readers also are mounted on several locations on platforms at train and light rail stations.

"We've asked everyone to both tap on and tap off, which gives us information about where people board, where they get off," Roberts said. "We will be able to have planning data that shows us complete trips people are making within the system, and that is really valuable to us."

How It Works

After swiping the card, the electronic reader responds with a colored light and a beep. Green and high tone means the pass is valid; red and low tone means the pass has been rejected, perhaps because the card has been deactivated or reported stolen; yellow and mid tone indicates the rider must take further action like upgrading the pass to use other modes of transportation.

The EFC system currently serves riders with an Eco Pass - a company-sponsored annual pass that employers issue to employees - or an Ed Pass - a school-issued pass. In each case, the company or school has paid for the passes through a contract with the UTA, so patrons can use public transportation for free as long as they're employed by or enrolled in a participating company or school.

The system also accepts contactless credit and debit cards like Visa payWave, MasterCard PayPass and American Express expresspay. Roberts describes this as an open-payment system because users can use bank-issued or other cards instead of UTA-specific cards to pay for rides. This is less restrictive than some other "closed" contactless systems, which Roberts said are typically proprietary systems.

"They're developed with a specific contractor, and the transit agency issues its own card," he said, but with the UTA system, you can use the same card to ride the bus as you would to pay for your groceries.

One "closed" card he compares the UTA system to is the SmarTrip card offered by Washington, D.C.'s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. It's a plastic, rechargeable fare card with a computer chip that people touch to circular targets on or inside of fare gates to pay for rides. Riders can purchase the card and add money to it as they wish, but transportation is its sole use.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.