Metro Transit will dramatically change how riders pay fares by moving to “Fast Fare Cards” later this year, which will eventually allow boarding on all doors of every bus and let riders add money to card accounts in multiple ways.
Riders will simply tap the Fast Fare Card on a reader every time they board a bus, with the system deducting $2, with those riding multiple times getting Metro’s multiple ride discounts along the way.
The change, which will come before Metro launches Bus Rapid Transit in the fall, will not increase fares with pricing based on the existing fare structure, officials said. It also will bring automatic fare capping to ensure riders always get the best deal, they said.
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“It is necessary to help speed up boarding on BRT,” Metro spokesperson Mick Rusch said. “However, our fare equipment is old and at the end of life. We have a lot of issues with cards getting jammed in equipment, which slows down boarding now. It’s going to be a lot easier way to pay your fares.”
The new $4 million fare system, funded entirely by a federal grant, will be among a series of major transformations of the city’s bus system.
In June, Metro’s sweeping system redesign, the biggest overhaul in 25 years, shifted the system from one that delivered a lot of coverage into Madison’s neighborhoods and relied heavily on transfer points to one that focuses on main arteries. The new system is intended to deliver more frequent and consistent service, but it also requires longer walks for some to reach a bus stop.
In late 2024, the city will launch BRT, a high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop service using elongated electric buses running on city streets and dedicated lanes — often in the center lane and with special stations in medians. Its initial route will run roughly between the East Towne and West Towne malls.
A second north-south route that will run from the North Side to Downtown, down Park Street and into Fitchburg is slated to begin operations in 2027-28.
It will take two to three months this spring and summer to install equipment for the new fare system on buses, Rusch said.
“We will be spending this time getting information out to the public and putting training sessions together,” he said. “There will be a transition period for customers that will last for a few months. This will involve asking customers to trade in their old fare items (10-ride cards or monthly passes) to load that dollar value into their accounts.
“Customers will be able to use old fare media for a limited time on local bus routes,” he said. “Customers boarding on BRT platforms will need to use a smartcard or purchase a fare at a sales outlet or BRT station kiosk.”
“We’re going to be out there talking to people so it makes sense,” he said.
Metro officials are scheduled to make an informational presentation to the city’s Transportation Committee at an online meeting at 5 p.m. today.
Board at any door
The new account-based fare system will bring change as dramatic as the new routes and fast pace of BRT.
Under the system, fare readers will be installed on all doors of every bus, with increased speed outweighing fare evasion from those entering rear doors that aren’t directly supervised.
“By speeding up the boarding process, it cuts time from the route,” Metro General Manager Justin Stuehrenberg said. “Most of our costs are measured by the hour in the driver’s wages, so that savings translates into dollars.”
But drivers will be trained to handle situations when people don’t pay.
“We are still working on our procedures on how a driver would handle someone not paying their fare, but the driver will not leave their seat,” Rusch said. “In general, they will ask a person to tap a card. If the issue continues, the driver will continue on and report the issue to a supervisor.”
Initially, at BRT stations, riders can board at all doors using the Metro Fast Fare Card or one-ride or one-day tickets purchased at the kiosk, which will have instructions in English and Spanish, using cash or other payment type.
In the beginning, for local buses at regular Metro stops, current fareboxes will remain at the front of all buses with riders able to use the Fast Fare Card, cash or old fare media. Readers will be put into use at the back door of buses for rear boarding at a later time.
In the future, for local buses at regular stops, riders can use the Fast Fare Card but Metro will phase out old fare media, fare boxes will only collect cash, and paper transfers will no longer be used.
Using the smart card
The key to riding will be the Fast Fare Card, which will be available for free through 2024 at Metro’s main office, 1245 E. Washington Ave., through the mail and at sales outlets. To add money to the card, riders can use an online account, a kiosk at a BRT station, or a sales outlet. The card will cost $2 starting in 2025.
“Some people may be concerned that they need to be able to use a computer to purchase their fare,” Rusch said. “That is not true.”
A single fare will remain $2, while a three-ride day pass will be capped at $5 with no charge the rest of the day, with four-day passes capped at $16.25 in a week with no charge for the rest of the week. The weekly price is based on one-fourth of the $65 cost of the current 31-day pass.
“When an adult boards a bus, they would tap their card and $2 would be deducted from their account,” Rusch wrote in an email. “The next time they tap, another $2 is deducted. On the third tap, they’d reach the pass price of our day-pass. So, they’d only be charged $1 additional dollar for that third tap to take them to $5. The rest of the rides that day are free.”
The fare capping system has multiple benefits, officials said. Riders don’t need to pay the cost for a pass all at once and can pay as they go. Savings are realized automatically. And there is no need to buy special passes, they said.
Metro also will provide reduced-price fare capping for youth, those with low incomes, seniors and those with disabilities, but the city must sill create a process for people to register for the discount fare cap.
For transfers, riders can simply tap the card and it will serve as a two-hour pass. Fast Fare Cards will be accepted on all buses, but paper transfers won’t be accepted on BRT platforms.
If an account runs low, the system will allow one more ride, but the rider will then need to reload the card, with auto reload coming in late 2024. If a card is lost or thrown away, there will be a $2 replacement fee.
This summer, the city will introduce a new set of sale outlets where riders can buy and reload Fast Fare Cards, with nearly 100 in the Madison area, including Kwik Trip, Walgreens, Dollar Stores and others. The city also will contact current sales outlets to gauge interest in the new system.
Around March 2025, riders also will be able to tap credit cards or use Google Pay or Apple Pay to pay for all fares.
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The new $4 million fare system, funded entirely by a federal grant, will be among a series of major transformations of Madison’s bus system.