After more than three decades of dithering, a universal fare card for CTA, Metra and Pace riders?

When voters narrowly approved the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority 37 long years ago, one of the promised benefits was a universal fare card that could be used on the CTA, commuter rail lines and suburban buses.

That wasn’t the main reason the RTA was created—it was to provide subsidies principally to the CTA—but a universal fare card was one of the attractive features that made absolute sense.

For me, it meant that I could buy an inclusive package that covered the suburban leg of my daily commute on the Milwaukee Road (one of Metra’s predecessors) and the city leg on CTA buses. For others it would simplify  transfers between, say, the Evanston Bus Co. (one of Pace’s predecessors) and the CTA’s Evanston Express.

It was a big part of the RTA supporters’ sales pitch: An integrated mass transit system that would “rationalize” a balkanized system of city and suburban train and bus systems, most of which were in deep financial trouble. The universal fare card would be just on of the benefits that would attract riders, the reasoning went.

Didn’t happen, thanks to the war between city and suburbs over control of the RTA. Sure, some logistical and accounting complexities would have to be worked out, but the very idea of any kind of integration that smelled of consolidation (requiring a sharing of power by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and the suburbs) was anathema. Even after Daley’s death and the RTA “reform” of 1983, the universal fare card seemed to be the RTA’s Gordian Knot.

It appeared that it would take an act of law, if not an act of God, to get it done. And now that’s what has happened, an act of law, I mean. On July 7, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law requiring the RTA to implement a universal fare card system by 2015. The law, House Bill 3927 also takes the first step toward making free wireless Internet available on the region’s buses and trains, requires Metra to provide web-based, real-time train arrival information and sets the stage for installation of automated external defibrillators on Metra trains.

All of which makes great sense. And who says the Illinois Legislature is useless?

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