Is a "smart card" clever enough to recognize SEPTA and PATCO and NJ Transit?

And are transit agencies smart enough to create automated fare systems that work together?

As public transit authorities move from tokens and tickets to "contactless" cards, two possible futures await riders.

One is a plastic version of the present, where each agency has its own fare card, usable only on its own system. The other future involves mutually acceptable cards, sort of an E-ZPass for transit riders.

Smart cards typically have a computer chip and radio antenna that allow passengers to wave the card at a turnstile and be on their way. The fare is automatically deducted from a preloaded sum or from a bank account.

With widespread interest in smart cards that can work in multiple cities, the fight now is over the best way to do it - bank cards or transit cards. That battle is shaping up to be the transit version of VHS vs. Betamax. Or HD DVD vs. Blu-ray.

Locally, PATCO has gone one way and SEPTA seems headed the other.

SEPTA expects to issue requests for smart-card proposals by mid-March and to award a contract by the end of the year. SEPTA is interested in getting a system that would use a new-generation Visa or MasterCard, making a bus or train ride just another retail transaction.

PATCO, the 14-mile rail line between Center City and South Jersey, introduced its Freedom transit card in November and expects all its stations to be converted to use the card by the end of the month. Its card now works only on its system, but it is designed to be adaptable to others.

Meanwhile, in North Jersey, NJ Transit is developing a pilot program for two bus routes in Jersey City to make fare collection compatible with the SmartLink transit card now available on PATH trains to New York. New Jersey transportation commissioner Kris Kolluri said the long-range goal is to have a card that works with the various New York and New Jersey transit agencies, including PATCO.

"There is a lot of discussion in the industry about where the future is going," said Martin Schroeder, manager for the Universal Transit Fare System Task Force of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). "There really is a sea change, because agencies are at the point where they have to do something."

To promote flexibility among transit agencies, APTA created a standard for transit cards, to allow them to be used on any system. PATCO is the first - and only - agency to follow that standard for transit cards, and even the PATCO card is not yet fully compliant with the APTA standard.

"The system we have now can be used by anybody," said PATCO general manager Robert Box. "SEPTA and New Jersey Transit could follow the APTA standard and use different vendors. And we could use each other's cards interchangeably. It would be similar to E-ZPass."

Box said he and other PATCO officials had met with SEPTA and NJ Transit planners to urge interchangeable fare systems.

"We're encouraging them to do something that is compatible with ours," he said. "I'm pretty confident neither authority is going to ignore what we're doing. We have set ourselves up to the best of our ability to have it be a regional system."

Mayor Nutter's newly appointed deputy mayor for transportation, Rina Cutler, said she didn't want to see PATCO, SEPTA, and the Philadelphia Parking Authority all with their own, incompatible smart cards.

"There ought to be one electronic payment system for transportation in the region," Cutler said.

SEPTA officials say they also want compatibility and expect to make "interoperability" a requirement for would-be vendors. For the million riders who travel daily on SEPTA buses, trains, subways and trolleys, a bank-card fare system seems to make most sense, according to new general manager Joseph Casey. He said that would make a SEPTA card compatible not only with other transit agencies, but with retail merchants, as well.

"I think the banking industry is heads and shoulders above the transit agency industry," Casey said.

SEPTA officials note that as important as compatibility is, most SEPTA passengers don't use other transit systems.

About 1,800 of PATCO's 33,140 daily riders also use SEPTA subways and buses.

On SEPTA's Regional Rail trains, there are about 500 transfers to and from Amtrak and 1,900 transfers with NJ Transit at Trenton, out of about 125,000 daily trips.

About 1,650 trips a day involve a transfer from NJ Transit's River Line to PATCO, and about 300 trips a day involve transferring from NJ Transit's Atlantic City Rail line to PATCO, according to 2006 NJ Transit data.

SEPTA, on the cusp of the technology revolution, may find itself in the unaccustomed position of being an industry leader.

"They will be one of the first with the opportunity to go to this without worrying about a 'legacy' system,' " said Greg Garback, the finance chief of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. He is chairman of the board of the Smart Card Alliance, a multi-industry group pushing for smart-card use. "You could say they 'strategically underinvested.' "

Garback described SEPTA officials as "extraordinarily bullish" on a smart bank card.

SEPTA wants to create a fare-collection system that would free the agency from being wedded to a single equipment manufacturer.

In the past, transit agencies typically bought fare-collection systems from a single manufacturer such as Cubic Corp. (New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, PATCO); Scheidt & Bachmann (Boston, Phoenix); Indra (St. Louis); Affiliated Computer Services (NJ Transit); or Thales (Toronto).

"When you go to CompUSA for a printer, you just take it home and plug it into your CPU without worrying about the brand. We'd like to do that with fare components," said Jerry Kane, SEPTA's project manager for the fare-collection study. "That really hasn't happened anywhere yet."

Even as transit agencies struggle with which way to go, the next generation of fare payment has appeared on the horizon: the cell phone.

On Jan. 29, San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system began testing a program that allows passengers to pay fares by waving their mobile phones at the smart-card reader on the turnstiles. A wireless chip in the phone completes the transaction and debits the passenger's bank account.

Such cell-phone systems are already used by foreign transit agencies, and cell phones are increasingly used for other retail purchases.

"More people have cell phones than credit cards," said Schroeder of APTA. He predicted widespread use of cell phones for fare payments within five years.

"If it's like crossing the Grand Canyon to get to a [smart] card, the leap from that point to adding mobile phones is like stepping across a stream," said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance. "The technology is already compatible with the banking industry."