A vague plan for a MetroCard replacement, three to five years away

By · Published in 2013

The MTA believes the current MetroCard system will be unsustainable and functionally obsolete by 2019, but a replacement effort is stuck in neutral with the agency aiming for a three- to five-year rollout time for the next-generation fare payment technology. With questions surrounding the widespread availability of bank-issued contactless credit or debit cards and a rapidly changing mobile payments, it is currently unclear what the eventual replacement for the MetroCard will be.

As part of Monday morning’s MTA Board committee meetings, the Capital Program Oversight Committee will hear an update on the new fare payment system, and the presentation materials are already available online [pdf]. From them, we can glean information concerning the current shape of the project, and seven years after the first contactless pilot and nearly a decade since the MTA first acknowledged the impending end of the MetroCard, more uncertainties surround the project than ever before.

So what’s happening with the project? For starters, it’s getting farmed out to the agencies from MTA HQ. As most of the work centers, unsurprisingly, around New York City Transit’s fare payment system, Transit will now have oversight of the MetroCard replacement project while Metro-North and the LIRR will work together (shocking, I know) to develop a rail road fare payment system. The Fare and Toll Payment System Coordination Committee, run out of MTA HQ, will ensure that all MTA agencies are collaborating on future fare and toll payment systems. Too many cooks stirring the soup or a much-needed division of labor that puts the project under the auspicies of Transit, a far more stable agency than MTA HQ?

No matter the answer to that question, something has to be done, and with Tom Prendergast a stalwart atop Transit even as the MTA has gone through a few CEOs itself, someone has to be willing to push forward. Notably, the MTA documents say that the MetroCard technology is nearing the end of its shelf life. It’s becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain, and the agency does not believe it can keep the equipment in a state of good repair much past 2019. While six years seems like a decent enough lead time, we know how quickly six years can flash by in the MTA’s world.

So with the same goals as earlier — decreasing operation costs, finding a low-cost open solution that won’t put the MTA at the mercy of an old, closed system — Transit will forge ahead with a contactless solution. It may not be as reliant on bank-issued cards as the MTA, under Jay Walder, had suggested a few years ago. According to these documents, bank-issued cards aren’t seeing as widespread an adoption as the MTA had anticipated. The presentation says that the value proposition remains “unclear for customers, retailers, [and] issuers.” With mobile payment technology quickly improving and new players frequently entering the game, the MTA wants to find something forward-looking that can be implemented relatively quickly as well.

So with a new time window — three to five years from now puts the project in the 2016-2018 range — the MTA almost wants to wait out the market. According to the presentation, the rough idea is to build contactless infrastructure on top of the existing system to layer it in while phasing out MetroCards. Such a move could make for a seamless transition when the MetroCard is finally killed. Still, though, the open payments model will not be fully implemented until the “landscape for transit is defined and less risky.”

For now then, the MTA has put forward some more modest goals. They will “refresh” the previous analysis while looking a more options for potential solutions. The agency will continue to build out an in-system telecommunications network as active cell service would be a vital piece for any potential mobile payments system. They will consult with their industry colleagues who have successfully implemented contactless card solutions in Chicago, London and elsewhere.

So where does that leave us? I hate to say the MTA is back at square one because it’s not. But it’s awfully close. The MetroCard shelf life is pushing the timeframe here, and the MTA has basically given itself a year of wiggle room with no clear answer as to a solution. (It’s worth noting that it took the MTA over four years from the first MetroCard pilot to outfit every turnstile in the system for the technology.) Furthermore, it sounds as though the MTA wants to be a leader in a field with no clear answer. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here if other solutions — like an Oyster card or an Octopus card — are adaptable in New York.

Ultimately, this is one clear area where a lack of institutional champion has left the MTA without a clear path. The next MTA head needs to make MetroCard replacement efforts a priority, and the agency heads now with more oversight on this project should strive to push it through as well. While we’ve prematurely eulogized the MetroCard a few times in recent years, its technological clock is ticking ever close to its end.

Categories : MetroCard

49 Responses to “A vague plan for a MetroCard replacement, three to five years away”

  1. BBnet3000 says:

    Is there any reason the MTA cant get a company to make cards specifically for them using the standard technology used for contactless credit cards?

    With the MTA about to start charging for new metrocards, the idea of users covering the cost of the media directly has been planted.

  2. There’s no need to look at London’s Oyster card when they can take a short trip up to Boston to see the same thing. I graduated from a school up there 3.5 years ago, and they started implementing their RFID system called the CharlieCard during my sophomore year. A simple tap on the farebox does the trick, and it actually works smoothly.

    Or better yet, what about talking to the Path HQ since they have the same thing for their monthlies and bulk pay-per-ride.

    • R. Graham says:

      I’m completely convinced that they have to avoid looking elsewhere. The more they look at getting vendors and developers to build this thing to top the market the better. What I didn’t mention below is also how I felt an app should be developed for phones with NFC technology to allow for mobile devices to be used for fare payments. That would set the gold standard worldwide.

      • The technical term for your position is “Not Invented Here”.

        Of course there should be one interoperable standard for fare payment across the Northeast, and of course adoption by the MTA is critical. But why is it important that the MTA spend its own money on developing a system, instead of lifting a pre-existing (and known-good) system from MBTA, SEPTA, or TfL?

        SEPTA’s NPT is specifically meant to be a new interoperable standard, and encourages adoption by other agencies by eliminating any avenue for vendor lockin in its design. Open platforms are the only way to defend the agencies, and by extension the riders and taxpayers, from rent-seeking by contractors.

        • Someone says:

          New Payment Tech, eh? That won’t happen to SEPTA for 3 years.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I was going to ask if there is any hope of seeing at least a regional standard (think MTA and NJT, especially).

          But, if what you say is true, it’s not that surprising. One of the major functions of the MTA is pleasing contractors, and preventing rent-seeking will not do that. The others are, in no particular order, divvying out pay and pensions, providing patronage jobs, and providing the occasional transit service.

          Sic transit Novum Eboracum gloria mundi :-O

  3. R. Graham says:

    All in all the MTA has to set a standard that wires it’s way throughout the region. NY, NJ, CT, PA and if possible as far north as Boston. They have to get out of the business of selling fares through vending machines in stations. Merchants and chain stores selling a starter contact-less card like E-ZPass to Go would be great. But mostly the card should be maintained and refilled through the proper online vending set up connected to a bank account, credit card or flex spending account through employer. If all this can be pulled off the new system would be a gold standard. Going with a banking card method would be best to allow the MTA to completely remove themselves from physical sales of fare refills and allow the banks to take over for those who still continue to avoid going online.

    • Someone says:

      Even better, a regular credit card can be used in conjunction with the MetroCard. The PATH Smartlink could also be used in the NYCS.

      • John S says:

        In parts of Sweden, the bus systems do not accept cash. You can get an RFID card and prepay fares with a discount, *but* if your balance runs out, you can simply tap the card and then pay with plastic. The last time I visited, it was for a short bit and I simply paid with my debit card each time. I suppose this will run afoul of the infamous ‘unbanked,’ but it seems like a pretty good system to me. Besides, I think this system ( http://mta.info/news/stories/?story=595 ) has real potential for that audience, even if I think it’s a bit usurious.

  4. Larry Littlefield says:

    DON’T DO IT!

    If the MTA forges ahead, the contractors will just end up ripping them off again, and others will reap the benefits.

    VISA, Mastercard and AMEX have just agreed to standards. This will be coming soon. You’d better believe that if the MTA moves now, it will end up with a separate standard and paying twice.

    This is what happens when no one is in charge. Hey MTA, call VISA, Mastercard an AMEX and get a timetable!

    Walder was right!

  5. Joe says:

    What about looking at Chicago’s new open fare system they’re currently rolling out called Ventra? You can either buy individual Ventra tickets, purchase manageable prepaid debit cards that double as CTA passes, or register your existing RFID credit/debit bankcard and just tap that at turnstiles. NFC on mobile phones will be supported soon as well.

  6. Someone says:

    In other news: Ventra in Chicago will be coming soon. Chicago Card currently has a lot of problems, so it was decided to replace it.

  7. SEAN says:

    You also need to ensure that NJT, PATH, LIRR & MNR are fully included in any future rollout. If ORCA, Clipper, Charlie, Ventra & Presto can have multi-transit system functionality, Then what replaces the Metrocard must do the same or better as the NYC transit region extends well beyond the city limits.

    • Alex C says:

      It would’ve been nice if the MTA, SEPTA, NJT and PATH had (what with their networks connecting) agreed to work with the credit industry on some sort of simple, unified system.

  8. Larry Littlefield says:

    Just pass a law making the banks do it. It’s their job.

    About time they did something other than gamble with each other, expecting to taxpayer to cover the losses of the loser if they are big enough.

  9. Mike says:

    I don’t get why public transit in the US can’t use one RFID standard? It could easily hold a wallet, and a few “unlimited” options/tickets on one card.

    They all get federal funding, so they might as well make it easier on us.

    • SEAN says:

      In a word, politics.

    • Someone says:

      Because people usually don’t travel between Chicago and New York and use both their metro systems daily.

      Also, each transit organisation likes to make money off selling RFID cards. They don’t want their cards to interoperate with those of other metro systems.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Then they’re stupid and they’re costing themselves riders, thereby magnifying their own irrelevancy. I regularly use three major northeastern (well, two and WMATA!) transit systems, and am an occasional PATH and NJT user too. A pass on NYC and a balance I can draw down for the others all one card would be wonderful for me.

        Meanwhile, there are also LIRR and MNRR just in the NYC region. Shit, it should work on Amtrak too, though the balance would admittedly have to be huge.

        • SEAN says:

          Infact, catering to out of towners is important for all riders. allowing them to use the same fare card they use at home, encourages further useage.


          Imagine taking a trip to Boston or DC & not having to buy a Smartrip or a Charlie card. Rather you just tap with your existing Metrocard or what ever it becomes. It may look like a small amount of good will, but it has a far greater impact in what mobility choices one might make. I can make this personal… a friend of mine who lives in Hackensack has a friend in Columbia MD. If both of them had a smartrip like card they could visit one another & not have to drive unessessarily. Plus they could spend time in their respective cities & just tap & go as they saw fit.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Agreed. Hell, I’d take it so far as to say they should honor each other’s fares (or at least offer steep discounts for transfers, if more practical). There is no reason why SEPTA shouldn’t neatly blend into MARC and NJT alike, and for MARC shouldn’t neatly blend into WMATA while MTA neatly blends into NJT and so on.

            For travelers, there should also be a regional transit pass that buys you every kind of rail trip in the northeast – a pricier one including Amtrak and maybe a less costly one not including Amtrak. Electronic collection basically turns attributing its usage to different agencies an accounting issue more than a collection issue.

            • SEAN says:

              Exactly. Some would utilize the Amtrak option & others won’t, it just depends on need. Also keep in mind that the NEC has taken an increasing share of passengers over the past few years as people choose not to deal with the hassles of flying between DC, NYC & Boston as it has become faster to take the train. No issues with airports & security lines & you are dropped in the heart of the city.

              • Bolwerk says:

                A lot of people might be willing to pay more for added convenience anyway. Especially for travelers, not having to worry is worth something.

                • SEAN says:

                  So true. At one time shuttles by Delta & US Airways were the highest grossing routes per seat mile, but now that is no longer the case as Amtrak & some of the new age intercity bus lines have made a serious dent.

      • Alon Levy says:

        The Japanese railroads, which make money from licensing their cards as electronic money, use one standard, and many are interoperable (with horrible bilateral agreements rather than multilateral ones).

  10. Catenary says:

    I think Metrolinx in Toronto is looking at being able to sell their system (PRESTO). It currently supports only RFID cards, but is designed to work with a NFC app and contact less debit/credit cards.

    • SEAN says:

      That is the next generation for Presto, as the TTC finally chose to get on board. One of the conditions for the TTC, was any smartcard system had to have remote payment functionality & be open sourced.

      Current card systems from Cubic are mostly closed systems, although cards from one system can sometimes be read & excepted by others even if they weren’t ment to do so. A Breeze card in Atlanta for example I found out is good as a Smartrip card if used in DC or Baltimore.

    • Someone says:


      The PRESTO electronic fare devices that are seen and located in select TTC subway stations are the sole responsibility of PRESTO:

      Don Mills
      Queen’s Park
      St. George
      St. Patrick
      York Mills

      PRESTO has not introduced concession fare functionality on the TTC devices at this time.

      It costs $2.65 per ride.

      To sign up, go here.

  11. AlexB says:

    This shouldn’t be so hard, no? You get a card – Charlie Card or a SmartTrip Card, or whatever you want to call it – and it holds all your cash and passes purchased from each of the regional systems – MTA, NJT, SEPTA etc. I mean, what else would they do?

    • Someone says:

      SmartLink too.

    • SEAN says:

      There’s a small handful of issues I do see, but with some tweeking they can be overcome.

      1A. NJT & SEPTA busses are zoned unlike the rest of the northeast. Do you want passangers to tap on & off in those cases?
      1B. What about NJT busses along Rt 9 & those to & from NYC or Philadelphia? Keep in mind that busses out of PA facilities now require tikets. A tap card could actually forgo such a requirement as a pass or cash would be enough.
      2. Would the card be open sourced? This would allow transit agencies to focus more on there more important tasks & outsource common fare collection to finantial institutions who should be doing it anyway as already stated above.

  12. Mika says:

    I just wanna be able to tap my Galaxy S6 or Windows Phone 10 or iPhone 8 or whatever and pay for a ride with NFC. They had a trial system in place that would work just like that. What’s the problem?

    • SEAN says:


    • Someone says:

      The problem is that Nexus 22 isn’t included.

      • SEAN says:

        What’s that.

        • AlexB says:

          Anyone can get a $5 rfid or whatever card, not everyone can get a smartphone, or even a dumb phone.

          • Someone says:

            They’d need to also have an account from which to pay the fares.

            @SEAN: Nexus 22 is a play on the “Nexus 4” smartphone, which currently does read RFID tags.

          • Mika says:

            I was kind of playing on the NFC trial that was in place a couple of years ago. The Galaxy S III and the Nexus phones support NFC (I believe Windows Phone 8 devices have to do so as well, and Windows 8/RT devices can have NFC as well), let you connect all major credit cards to it, and could be adapted to support an NFC-based pre-paid transit card. The pre-paid card would obviously be available without a smartphone, it’d just be a nice option to have.

            Of course, that assumes the MTA would ever go with an open standard like NFC…

    • Epson45 says:

      You know why NFC doesnt work well during the trial… NFC stands for No F___ing Clue. It still in beta testing.

  13. JJJ says:

    Its impossible for multiple agencies to collaborate. Right ezpass?

  14. Henry says:

    …if it’s an “open” standard that they’re developing, why does the MTA need a bank to issue cards? Heck, they can set up a payments division that issues an MTA card, and because it uses NFC/RFID standards, it can be (theoretically) used as a debit card. With a captive user base of several million riders a day, this card would easily replace the Metrocard as the region’s transit card, and probably the MuniMeter cards, and become the most ubiquitous payment card in the five boroughs, the metro region, and eventually the Northeastern United States.

    This sounds crazy, but there is a precedent – Hong Kong’s Octopus Card, developed in 1997, is now a card that is valid in not only Hong Kong, but Macau and Shenzhen, China. This would require some ambition and competent thinking on the smartcard front, though, so I’m not holding my breath.

  15. Chris says:

    If I recall correctly, PATH went out of their way to involve MTA,NJT, and I think even PATCO and SEPTA in the development of their SmartLink contactless card, when they could have implemented it far more quickly and inexpensively on their own. This may be the one time in recent memory that a Port Authority agency stepped up to its mandate of coordinating regional transportation, so it’s particularly sad, though not unexpected, that it didn’t work out.


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