TRAVERSE CITY — A $900,000 technology upgrade will introduce smart cards and electronic bus passes into the area's public transportation agency and even provide a throwback to a service that went out of style on buses four decades ago — making change.
Federal and state grants paid for the new electronic fare boxes that will debut on Bay Area Transportation Authority buses Monday. BATA officials said the fare boxes are part of an overall strategy to put BATA on the leading edge of technology to make ridership easier and more efficient for its customers.
"It's an amazing journey and it's going to make it a whole different organization that will add a lot more value to the community as a whole but in a lot of different ways," said Tom Menzel, BATA executive director.
The electronic boxes will accept payment through three different methods: temporary, paper zip ticket cards with a magnetic stripe used for a specific time period, or cash value; plastic smart cards that customers can continuously add cash value onto, and cash.
Riders who pay with cash and don't have the exact fare will receive a ticket for the value of their change that can be used for future rides.
The zip tickets will replace the blue punch cards and will allow BATA to now sell 24-hour or 72-hour bus passes. The cards can also be purchased on the bus for a specific cash value.
Zip tickets will allow BATA to better track ridership and know the value of outstanding pre-purchased rides, said Carrie Thompson, BATA director of business development. Several agencies in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties purchase and distribute the blue punch cards and BATA has no way to accurately track them.
Riders can still use the old punch cards through Oct. 31. After that they will need to exchange the punch cards for zip tickets.
The smart cards, which BATA is calling a Zoom card, has an electronic chip that will allow users to tap and go. It can be purchased as a student pass or with a set amount of cash similar to a gift card. The cards are rechargeable, but only at BATA's transfer stations on Hall Street or Cass Road.
The new boxes come on the heals of BATA's complete overhaul of its routes in May and the installation of finger touch mobile data terminals in buses at the end of 2012. The terminals replace tracking ridership by pencil and paper and will mesh with the new fare boxes.
The boxes and terminals will also lay the groundwork for two more upgrades. BATA is working to allow people to add value to their zoom cards online and provide real-time gps tracking of its buses on its web site and through an application for smart phones.
Menzel said in two years BATA will have transformed from a completely manual operation to a technologically modern agency in about half the time most organization take. The short time-line was forced upon BATA by grand deadlines, but Menzel credits his young staff with getting it done.
"Our next step is a performance improvement project to make sure we are using that technology to grow and improve our business in better, innovative ways," Menzel said.