Aug. 11--RALEIGH -- City bus riders will soon have an alternative to juggling coins and cash to pay their fare.
Capital Area Transit has accepted a $340,596 state grant to install "smartcard" readers on 70 buses. Unlike CAT's current magnetic strip tickets, smartcards can be reloaded using cash or a credit card.
Initially, riders will have to reload the cards with vending machines at the Moore Square bus station and at major transfer points throughout the city. But CAT plans to eventually set up a system for reloading cards online.
Raleigh will be the first bus service in the Triangle to use smartcards, but Triangle Transit and others plan to follow.
"We're very excited that we were successful with the grant," transit administrator David Eatman said. "Our partners will be watching as we go through the technology. They'll be evaluating the good and the challenges."
While nearly every business these days accepts credit cards, most CAT riders still use cash to pay fares, typically inserting $1 for a one-way ride or $2 for a day pass as they board the bus. Riders can buy a prepaid card, but those are only sold in $25 increments at two locations: the Moore Square station and CAT's Poole Road headquarters.
Eatman said the new vending machines will allow riders to load any amount or buy a one-day, weekly or monthly pass. And they'll be available around the clock -- a big improvement from the Moore Square ticket window that closes at 6.
If fewer riders use cash, bus boarding will move faster and the city will save on deposit costs. But Eatman said buses will never turn away someone standing at a bus stop with a dollar bill. "We don't want to do away with cash fares," he said.
The new system will also cost less to maintain because smartcard users won't have to run tickets through the fare box.
"When you have thousands of mechanical transactions per day, it does produce wear and tear on the system," Eatman said. "A contactless card does not."
Eatman expects to have the smartcard system in place within a year to 18 months. The new fare option will roll out as work begins on a $7 million renovation at the Moore Square station.
In addition to approving the smartcard grant, the Raleigh City Council got a look at the new station design Tuesday.
Highlights of the upgrade include new bathrooms, a central ticketing window with a big screen for arrival and departure times and a third bus lane. The goal is to make the station more inviting while allowing for more buses -- at least until a new bus station opens in the Warehouse District next to Raleigh's Union Station train hub.
The station hasn't gotten a major upgrade in 26 years, and city leaders hope the facelift makes riding the bus more appealing. Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said it's important that the city keeps the area clean.
"You can brighten this up, you can make it all it can be, but if we don't maintain it, it's for naught," she said.
Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter
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