The Port Authority's conversion to a fare collection system using electronic smart cards will get its first big test starting next week.
University of Pittsburgh faculty, staff and students will begin using the technology Aug. 1, tapping their university ID cards on a target on the new fareboxes that have been installed on buses and light-rail vehicles.
"This is the first large-scale implementation," said Winston Simmonds, the authority's rail operations-engineering officer.
When the project is fully implemented next year, bus and rail riders will be able to pay with permanent plastic cards that have embedded computer chips. Riders will tap the cards on the fareboxes and the amount will be deducted automatically.
They will be able to replenish the value of the cards at vending machines or online. Cash also will continue to be accepted.
More than 40,000 Pitt students and employees get unlimited free rides on the transit system. The university is paying the Port Authority $6.8 million this year for the service.
The university switched its ID cards some time ago, making them compatible with the smart card system, which the authority is calling ConnectCard.
Earlier this year, the system was tested to ensure that when a student or employee leaves Pitt, the fare system's database was updated promptly to terminate their free ride privileges.
Later this year, the authority board expects to develop fare policies for the ConnectCard system. Currently, riders can purchase unlimited monthly or weekly passes and one-trip tickets. The new system will allow the authority a broad range of new options, including unlimited daily rides for a set price.
"It's a significant change to the way we do business," spokesman Jim Ritchie said.
The board's decisions will be a factor in determining the next group of riders who will start using the technology. Most likely, it will be annual pass purchasers, he said.
In checking with other transit systems about their experience with smart card conversion, the authority concluded that it would be a mistake to switch all or most of its riders to ConnectCards simultaneously, Mr. Ritchie said. So the new system will be implemented gradually throughout much of 2012.
The $32 million project is designed to improve collections and provide valuable new data about ridership, while offering greater convenience to customers. Federal funding is covering 80 percent of the cost and state funding 16.7 percent.
Other transit agencies in the region are expected to participate in the conversion.