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Columns John Ruch

Working toward a ‘unified’ fare system for all metro Atlanta mass transit

A Breeze Card as used by the current MARTA, SRTA, GRTA and CobbLinc systems. Credit: Georgia State Road & Tollway Authority

Expansion of metro Atlanta’s mass transit deservedly gets a lot of attention, as getting people where they want to go remains alternative commuting’s biggest local challenge.

Less glamorous, but nearly as important, is making it easy for riders to pay for and transfer between the metro’s many transit services, from local shuttles to MARTA’s rail network. This year, the Atlanta-Regional Transit Link Authority (The ATL) intends to live up to its name by settling on the technology and policy to make that happen.

There’s already consensus on the tech: MARTA’s replacement for the current Breeze card system, which is just starting a roughly five-year development process. Much trickier is the question of fares and transfers, which might become unified but not necessarily uniform. The ATL is about to review fare structures with some kind of committee that may not be called one, officials have indicated, so that transit operators don’t feel dictated to on the touchy topic of money.

A MARTA rider holds a Breeze card in a transit agency promotional video.

Chris Tomlinson, who heads the ATL — a 13-county regional transit authority — as well as the state’s commuter bus systems, told the ATL board June 3 that MARTA’s forthcoming new system “offers literally a once-in-a-decade opportunity to leverage technology to better connect the existing systems while respecting autonomy of the different operators.”

The Breeze replacement is currently known as “Automated Fare Collection 2.0” or “AFC 2.0,” pending what presumably will be sexier branding down the road. “What is of utmost importance is the customer experience, and MARTA looks forward to the collaboration with our partners to develop and implement the regional fare collection that works well for all transit riders,” said Stephany Fisher, a spokesperson for that transit agency.

Tomlinson said in an interview that metro transit systems need to give riders better help navigating what can be a maze of different cards, systems and fares.

“One of the biggest barriers, we’re convinced, is it’s just not easy to do,” he said of transfers in particular. “At the end of the day, how do we make it easier for customers to do?”

What fares should be and which technology to use in collecting them are not entirely separate decisions, Tomlinson said. “They are different but they are clearly linked,” he said. “… And yes, we believe everyone utilizing MARTA’s Automated Fare Collection system in the region would move us leaps and bounds toward having [a unified fare policy].”

AFC 2.0 is discarding the entire Breeze system for a new model where riders would be able to pay by swiping their own bank card over a sensor or using a digital wallet and independently developed apps that plug seamlessly into MARTA’s network. MARTA is just starting procurement for a consultant to write up the official system requirements, but it already has ATL consensus that AFC 2.0 will be the metro-wide system and an intergovernmental agreement is in the works to make that official. A long, phased-in implementation is scheduled to start in late 2022 and last into 2026.

AFC 2.0 is intended to be more flexible for everyone. Instead of being based on an individual card issued to a card-holder (and a recently introduced, transitional mobile version), the system will be account-based, with riders free to use a variety of payment methods. And unlike Breeze, where a single private vendor owns and operates the payment system, AFC 2.0 will be “open-architecture,” where MARTA owns the system and allows connection to a variety of other software and apps.

In short, AFC 2.0 will be highly customizable. And that’s important in managing a constellation of transit systems that vary from gigantic bus-and-train networks to the Center for Pan Asian Community Services’ vans that serve refugee, immigrant and low-income communities in Clarkston and the Buford Highway corridor.

Fisher says AFC 2.0 “will allow flexibility for operators who may have different fare products that makes uniformity in fare products not necessary,” citing as one example MARTA’s $1 senior fare, a discount that other systems may not offer.

Figuring out a fare policy

But it’s also time to talk about how fares of all of those dozen or so different systems work together. The ATL began an internal study of fare structures about a year ago. And talking about money and revenue raises what Tomlinson and other officials describe as “concerns” while declining to go into specifics. Transit operators like Cobb County’s CobbLinc are similarly not chatty about the behind-the-scenes tensions as devils are found in the details.

Chris Tomlinson in The ATL's board room

Chris Tomlinson, executive director the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority. Credit: File/Maggie Lee

“CobbLinc has been involved in multiple workshops with our transit partners in an effort to resolve concerns over the technology that would be used and the fare structure that would be formed,” said the Cobb County Department of Transportation in a written statement. “We will continue to work with those partners as the process moves forward.”

Tomlinson said a major discussion point is “trying to establish some guidelines about whether it would make sense to have some equitable, area-wide fare structures.” Should transfers be free or not? Should there be regional fares, and if so, should they be flat-rate or use distance-based pricing by zones? Should fares be raised or lowered?

Then there’s the political question of how to hold such discussions. Since starting the fare policy study, the ATL has been talking with “stakeholders” in the various metro transit agencies. “What we’re seeing through these stakeholder groups is a lot of these ‘aha!’ moments and ‘wows!’” says Tomlinson. “[But] we haven’t got in a room together to share those insights or those concerns. … Should all this come into one forum? Is there maybe a committee where all that should be discussed?”

ATL officials indicated at a May board meeting that too formal a discussion group might rub some operators the wrong way, while Tomlinson spoke of a possible ad-hoc committee. Regardless, the rubber is about to meet the road, as the internal fare policy study is wrapping up and the ATL aims to form consensus on a proposal by year’s end. Then it needs to start weighing in on MARTA’s AFC 2.0 formulation, too.

MARTA, for its part, says it’s ready to cooperate. “While the ATL study has changed focus a bit since it began, MARTA sees it now as focused on establishing regional fare policy standards of collaboration, not uniformity,” said Fisher.

If you’re a transit rider with thoughts to share about fares and collection systems, you can find your ATL board representative here.

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2 Comments

  1. Dana Blankenhorn June 29, 2021 10:25 am

    What we really need is a national system for transit payment — toll roads, train rides, ferries — all paid through the same card. Available everywhere. And add banking services, as is done in Japan.Report

    Reply
  2. Alex W Barrella June 29, 2021 10:24 pm

    simply make fare free at point of service.Report

    Reply

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