However, open systems aren't found only in Utah. The Octopus Card - a multipurpose card used to pay for public transit and purchases from vending machines, stores and schools - debuted in Hong Kong in 1997. Contactless cards are used for transit in other places as well. The United Kingdom's Oyster card is a contactless offering for travel via public transit, but like the SmarTrip card, is only for transportation.

Laying the Groundwork

The UTA spoke with other smart card-using transportation authorities years ago to find out what exactly EFC entails. They included the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Chicago Transit Authority.

"I was retained by UTA to try the strategy for electronic fare collection," Roberts said. He estimates that he began working for the UTA in 2005 as a contract employee. "Then as we got into it and began to chart the course that we wanted to follow, the UTA chose to hire me as a full-time employee because it became clear that this was going to be a job that would be going on for a good long time."

The authority deployed the contactless cards in a pilot project in December 2006 on the UTA's ski bus service. Roberts and his colleagues put the technology on 41 buses that took skiers and ski resort employees into canyons and tested the system in the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 ski seasons.

"We did it so we could learn how to do it, and we learned an enormous amount," Roberts said. "It really did inform and help us to understand what was involved."

The UTA chose ERG Group as the vendor for the pilot program, the same company that supplied the technology for the public rollout currently under way. The transit authority awarded its second contract to ERG in October 2007 for three years with three additional one-year options.

ERG manages all of the data the cards collect on the back end through a system called eO, or the easy open payment system. The card readers, also called validators, record information the UTA can view through eO, which contains a database of authorized users.

"What's different with our fare collections system and others is we don't have equipment. We have a validator that resides on the vehicle, but that's it. There are no added machines, there are no point-of-sale devices out in the market," said Michael Cook, vice president of open payment systems at ERG. The transactions and ride authorizations are facilitated by software.

When a rider taps his or her employer- or school-issued card to the reader, the information on the card is checked against the available information in the database. The transaction process is similar with debit and credit cards.

"Let's say you had not registered and you're a first-time user. You take out your bank card and that reader will read the bank card information, and it will deliver it to our server where we will then deliver it to the payments network for authorization," Cook said.

Emerging Possibilities

Currently authorizations and transactions occur when someone taps on, so it doesn't matter when he or she exits or how long the ride goes, but as data is collected and assessed on transit routes and the time spent riding, payment structures may change.

"In the future, point A and point B will be defined and there may be some distance-based fares, so it will matter where you tap off, and the fares will be calculated after you tap off," Cook said.

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.