MARTA Breeze card could be widely used

Carlos Hun thinks the Breeze card is great. “The Breeze card is tight,” he says, noting its light weight compared with tokens, the advantages to MARTA of using more advanced technology, and the convenience to customers.

It’s been four years since the Breeze card started to replace tokens in the MARTA economy, winning over some riders but frustrating others. Now, Breeze is in line for an even bigger role.

If the state or the region should find the money and political approval to build a seamless, far-reaching mass transit system stretching across metro Atlanta, the Breeze card is now the most likely way riders will be paying their fares. No final approval has been voted, but the Atlanta Regional Commission this month and three other agencies have just approved a committee that will work toward setting it up.

As a practical matter, Breeze is already used in Cobb, Clayton and Gwinnett counties, and with state Xpress buses as well as MARTA. That allows suburban riders to transfer using the same card — almost as if they were using the same system.

Which prompts the question: How is Breeze working out?

A dozen riders interviewed last week mostly said Breeze works fine, or that they really liked it. Some have had problems, and some hate it.

“I do like it,” said Sharon Thomas, who lives in Cobb County and uses it to transfer between systems to get to her job near the Arts Center station. She’s been riding MARTA about four years, and said the transition from tokens to Breeze was not that hard “if you just listen and follow directions.”

She has seen some riders out of luck, however, as they tried to transfer between systems when they found they loaded their Breeze ticket with “rides” rather than a pure cash amount. Cash will transfer, but rides don’t, she said.

More troubling was an internal MARTA audit of the implementation of the Breeze system. The system went under contract in 2003 and rolled out to the public in 2005 and 2006.

That audit, provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under an open records request, found the implementation went millions of dollars over budget and a year behind schedule, and was plagued with “severe operational issues.” MARTA technology staff complained of poor training that left them unprepared for their full responsibilities, and auditors found recordkeeping to be in some cases incomplete or nonexistent.

The problems exploded into public view on May 23, 2007. Following a software upgrade, the $190 million system crashed, forcing employees to open the gates for free rides or try to take cash.

MARTA CEO Beverly Scott said last week that she requested the audit after she took over in late 2007 precisely because she wanted to know how the organization had dealt with such a major change and whether there were issues to address.

She said she was confident the Breeze system would do well in any future expansion because MARTA had learned from the audit, and worked hard to strengthen its control over project management. She added that the shift from tokens to an electronic fare system was a one-time leap much greater than changes within technology systems.

“Is it perfection? No,” Scott said. “But this agency has been very, very, very religious” about working out Breeze problems, she said. “Not in any way have we put it on automatic pilot.”

Gwinnett County Transit in August started allowing riders to pay with Breeze if they chose. Gwinnett Transit Director Phil Boyd said that it appeared MARTA had learned from its mistakes, and all went smoothly. “It’s been very well received,” Boyd said.

MARTA customers still pointed out issues. Buy a ticket (not a card) without enough money loaded on it, and they’re out of luck: New tickets can’t reload for six hours. Some riders said they had loaded money on a card at a machine only to see it wiped out. For some, customer service restored their money; for others, not. Cortez Meredith, who rides between Decatur and Avondale stations, said one day he put in for a weekly card. “It put on a day. I tried to put another day on it; it took off all my rides. I went to the window, and she said she could preserve a day if I’d pay for another day,” Meredith said.

Like many other passengers, in spite of that experience, Meredith continues to ride MARTA and use the Breeze card every day. Furthermore, he’d be glad to see Breeze used in a major system expansion. “If it’s for a better cause, I’m all for it,” he said.

Eventually, riders will probably pay more the farther they travel. The Breeze card will make it easier to vary those charges and determine which customers travel how far.

The regional transit that is currently being planned — largely in response to Atlanta’s crushing traffic congestion — would extend much farther than those five counties. But even with higher fares, there is no way to build it without a lot of new funding, which would have to be greenlighted by the Legislature.

MARTA’s finances are shaky, and officials there say if they don’t get help from the state this year, they’re facing a crisis.

The Breeze system has helped MARTA’s finances a little bit, officials there have said. The turnstiles were much easier to jump than the Breeze fare gates, so some lost revenue is now being captured.

One rider, attorney Jed Douglas, said he thought the Breeze card would be a plus in a regional system. Without paying separately here and there, Douglas said, “I could just go anywhere.”

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