After years of starts and stops, seemingly endless pilot programs, a clean slate and a vow to move forward with something by 2020, the MTA’s plan to replace the MetroCard with a next-generation fare payment technology may finally be moving forward. In what can best be described as baby steps, the MTA, in a document to be presented to the Board’s Capital Program Oversight Committee later this week, has unveiled some thoughts on the MetroCard’s eventual replacement. It will be an account-based system relying on open architecture and contactless technology based upon payment industry standards, and it should arrive some time around 2020.
The document presents the MTA’s strategic framework and approach to new fare payment media and is the culmination of efforts that started in January when the agency admitted that it needed a plan. Their current projections for the MetroCard system say the technology will become prohibitively expensive to maintain by the end of the decade, and their current plan for a next gen fare payment system involves systemwide use by 2020.
First, the MTA has its sights set on a contactless fare payment technology — similar to those in place the world over and even in Chicago, to mixed reviews, and in the late planning stages in Philadelphia. The MTA also notes that the technology will support multiple forms of payment media. This means that the agency is eying a system that includes mobile payment capabilities, smart chips embedded in credit and debit cards and a “transit only” tap and ride available for those who don’t have or want to use one of the other options.
Next, the agency addresses technological implementation. The goal here is to reduce reliance on vending machines, which are “relatively costly to procure, operate and maintain” while making “minimal changes to fare arrays.” In other words, turnstiles aren’t going to be replaced by entry gates any time soon, and the MTA wants to outfit existing infrastructure with new card reader technology instead. On buses — which, as part of the BusTime installations, already have the technology infrastructure to accept a mobile payment system — fare readers would likely be adjacent to, but not integrated with, the farebox.
The other two pieces to the puzzle concern back-end support rather than customer-facing technology. Ideally, the new system will be account-based in which value would be stored on an account rather than on a card. This would require a significant investment in station infrastructure, but the MTA believes it can tap into Help Point intercoms, On The Go consoles and the Transit Wireless network to assist in this area. Finally, the new fare system would integrate across the MTA’s internal agencies so that the same account can be used to buy the equivalent of a 30-day MetroCard and LIRR or Metro-North tickets as well.
As I read through the presentation, I couldn’t help but think that it doesn’t say that much. In a sense, it’s talking in circles around aspects of a plan that have been on the table for years, and it still seems like the MTA is spinning its wheels a bit. It shouldn’t have taken this long to get this point, and it’s hard to say if this latest represents significant forward progress from the May 2011 white paper on the MetroCard replacement.
This time around, the MTA hopes to award a design contract by early 2014 and seems committed to developing a solution from 2015-2020. We’ve been down this road before though, and it still seems as though the MTA is trying too hard to reinvent the wheel. Maybe they need to, but without real forward progress, the costs to maintain the current MetroCard system will simply continue to climb.