Public transportation customers will have an easier time navigating Chicagoland by the end of this year, the Regional Transportation Authority said earlier this month.

The RTA board approved the hiring of two consulting firms to help customers better plan trips that involve transferring among the CTA, Pace and Metra systems. The board also approved proposed enhancements to the BusInfo system.

Retained as consultants were Gensler Architecture, Planning and Design Worldwide and CHK America.

One aspect of the interagency information project is to improve signage.

RTA manager Mark Pitstick said the agency will design and test some signs later this year.

The project also calls for the creation of more user-friendly maps, Pitstick said.

The project is budgeted at $1.25 million. A federal grant of $1 million provides most of the funding. The RTA will supply the remaining $250,000.

The approved enhancements to the BusInfo system changes are designed to provide customers with better, up-to-the-minute schedules, said Duana Love, manager of technology development.

BusInfo is available through the RTA’s Travel Information Center, which handled a record 443,098 calls in January.

The Information Center can be reach at 836-7000 from any regional area code.

 The goal of the project is provide customers with expanded trip-planning options based on real-time changes, she said.

A second phase of the project, she said, will eventually serve to notify customers of changes via cell phones and PDAs, but no time frame has been set.

The BusInfo improvements will cost no more than $900,000 over the next year, Love said.

She added the RTA is also working with the Illinois and Chicago departments of transportation to provide customer service to highway drivers. For example, if traffic was particularly bad, that information could be posted on a message board along with directions to a nearby Metra station and parking lot.

The board commended staff efforts to make the system more user-friendly.

Both Mary McDonald and Fred Norris, a self-described “country boy,” praised them for making use of new technology.

Executive Director Paula Thibeault also spoke briefly about a project to design a farecard that would be accepted by all three transit agencies.

She will present the findings from a recent study to the Committee on Mass Transit, chaired by State Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston), on March 17.

RTA spokesman Scott McPherson said the biggest challenge comes from the agencies’ different ticket-checking systems.