Forget having to scrounge for the correct change to hop on a city bus.
In 18 months, Winnipeg Transit buses will have electronic machines that will make sure you've deposited the right amount. If you'd rather pay with plastic, you can visit a kiosk or log on to the Internet to put money on a smart card so you don't have to count coins at all.
Winnipeg Transit director Dave Wardrop said the revamped bus-fare collection system will be rolled out at the start of 2013, will make paying more convenient and will help the city stop people from trying to short-change them or hitch a free ride.
That's good news, since the project has been delayed after it was first unveiled as part of a bigger transit overhaul. In 2006, city council approved a plan to have existing fare boxes replaced with an automated smart-card system. The fare boxes have been out of production for decades, which makes it difficult to get replacements or spare parts if something breaks.
The project was delayed as other upgrades, such as rapid transit and video surveillance, were considered higher priorities and the department did not have enough manpower to do everything at once, Wardrop said.
Winnipeg's current system relies on paper-based tickets, passes and transfers. A city report says passengers can avoid paying proper fares by depositing insufficient change, using expired transfers and forging tickets and passes. It's difficult to estimate how much money transit loses from fare evasion, but experts estimate it is as much as five per cent of transit revenue.
Cities such as Regina and St. John's, N.L., already use smart-card technology.
"This is a quantum shift in how Winnipeg Transit will do business," Wardrop said. "It'll be a big change for customers and it'll be a big change for Winnipeg Transit."
Transit passenger Sharon Hutchison purchases weekly bus passes sporadically, when she knows she'll use public transit more often. She said the new smart cards will make it easier to only spend what she needs.
"I have missed buses sometimes because I had to run into a store to get the right change," said Garry Friesen, who was waiting for a bus at Donald Street and Portage Avenue.
Other transit riders aren't convinced the change will improve their commutes. Cody Johnston said he would prefer to pay the cash fare. The 29-year-old is not a daily transit rider and said it wouldn't be worth it to load money on a smart card.
"I really couldn't see it being more convenient than just flashing a pass to the bus driver," he said.
At a special meeting on Thursday, council's public works committee approved an additional $2.5 million to complete the upgrade to transit-fare collection boxes, bringing the total cost of the project to about $17 million. Winnipeg Transit said the additional funds were needed due to market conditions and the fact the department needs to hire three new employees to maintain the new equipment.
Wardrop told the committee transit plans to educate the public on how the new system will work before it launches. People can still pay cash for their fare, he said, but the automated box will ensure they've inserted the right amount of change -- sort of like a vending machine.
"It's important to maintain an accessible system for everyone," Wardrop said.
--with files from Daniela Germano