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SEPTA IS embarrassingly late to the electronic fare-collection-system party.

Transit agencies in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Boston and New York are already on board - some since the 1990s.

The future of urban centers like Philadelphia will depend more and more on modern and efficient transit systems. Some people and businesses now decide whether to move to a city based on how close they can be to public transit. Plus some motorists are "living green," parking the car and taking public transit to reduce air pollution.

While SEPTA's timetable to have a system in place in five to eight years is aggressive, it's already behind the curve.

But there's enough blame to go around for the delay. SEPTA has long been starved by the old, fickle state-transit funding system - having to beg Harrisburg each year for money. The agency, which constantly struggled with shortfalls in its operating budget, had little confidence that it could afford to move forward with an electronic fare plan. Just last year, SEPTA had to transfer

$36.8 million from its capital budget (part of which was to go toward fare modernization) to close a gap in its $991 million operating budget.

But SEPTA should have made a better case that the agency's long-term health depended on modernizing the fare system. In its court fight with the city over fares (now before Commonwealth Court), SEPTA has justified the move by saying that eliminating paper transfers would be a step toward initiating electronic fares and saving money.

But now that a timetable has been announced, maybe we can start to envision the day when SEPTA riders can hold a credit card or key fob in front of a turnstile and, without breaking stride, board the El or Broad Street subway. Or step on a bus or trolley with no cash, no fuss, no tokens, no transfers.

Some riders in New York City are already doing that in a MTA pilot program with Citibank MasterCard "contactless cards." In Boston, the new Charlie Card, which combines magnetic strips and contactless technology, celebrated its one-year anniversary this month.

SEPTA can use the experiences of these and other cities as a guide for what will work for its passengers. Plus, the new system will get the bulk of SEPTA's attention as the El renovation, which has sucked the life from businesses on Market between 46th and 63rd, winds toward its expected completion.

SEPTA's plan is to use "contactless technology," in which a circuit chip and antenna are embedded in a credit card or SEPTA-issued card.

Initially, the transit agency will seek a private partner from the financial community to help with the project, which could cost $130 million to $200 million. Credit-card agencies like MasterCard and Visa, no longer averse to small payments on their cards, could especially benefit.

The money's there, thanks to the new transportation law. The technology and interest are there. So there's little excuse now for SEPTA not to bring its riders - and itself - into the 21st century.

Quickly. *