As the MTA tries to get plans to replace the MetroCard back on track, the agency is considering reintroducing tokens as a last-ditch effort, according to multiple MTA sources. If the MetroCard reaches the end of its life, as is expected to happen by 2019, with no successor technology in place, the MTA may resort to tokens to save on fare payment system maintenance costs.
Previously, tokens had been in use since the mid-1950s when the fare jumped from a dime to 15 cents. Along with the increase came a move to offer up straphangers just one coin, but after nearly five decades, the MTA did away with tokens as calls from rider advocates for unlimited ride options and free transfers grew louder. Tokens were last accepted by the MTA on April 13, 2003.
Recently, though, as costs of maintaining the MetroCard system have increased and the early 1990s technology has aged, the MTA has tried to find a suitable next-generation replacement. An extensive pilot program throughout the mid-2000s and early 2010s involved a credit and debit card-based touch system, but recent revelations that the banking industry has not been quick to adopt the technology led the MTA to scrap these plans. It seems likely that the MTA will instead develop a proprietary payment card — if it can do so before 2019. If they cannot, we get tokens.
Initial reactions from both subway riders and those fighting for the rights of passengers have been mixed. Some are looking forward to the return of a beloved New York icon while others are worrying about the impact tokens will have on ridership. There’s no such thing, after all, as an unlimited ride token.
“Let’s not be too happy,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said. “We fought long and hard for unlimited ride cards, and the return of the token could drastically impact transit ridership.”
For the MTA, the token could bring about an uptick in revenue as well. With the introduction of pay-per-ride discounts and unlimited ride cards, the real cost of a subway ride dropped well below inflation-adjusted fare levels from the years before the introduction of the MetroCard. The token, without such discounts, will help the MTA beef up its finances.
On the other hand, New Yorkers long accustomed to monthly discounts and frequent rider incentives may find such a marked increase in fares and a corresponding decrease in convenience too much to handle. Additionally, no one wants to carry around bags of tokens either. They are, after all, significantly heavier than a flimsy piece of plastic.
“Our move to reexamine tokens would come only as a last-ditch effort if our technological initiatives are unsuccessful,” Tom Prendergast, the MTA’s interim executive director, said. “It’s premature to discuss these long-term plans, but we cannot close the fare gate to any option currently on the table.”
Losing the MetroCard, ultimately, would be a blow to an agency that has long struggled with technological innovation. Costs are costs, though, and if it’s better for the MTA to resort to an older fare payment system rather than burn money on maintaining what will then be a 30-year-old technology, we may have to make some sacrifices.
Still, 2019 is a long way off, and perhaps the MTA can find a technological solution before the next six years elapse.