When the Mayor and the Governor magnanimously set aside their unnecessary differences to come to an agreement on the MTA’s capital funding gap, it seemed as though a victimless dance had ended. The MTA had its money; the governor had his political victory over the mayor; and most New Yorkers wouldn’t notice any difference. But everything comes with a cost.
For the MTA, the capital funding crisis could have been worse. Though we still don’t know exactly where the money will come from, by reaching an agreement in October, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio avoided a slowdown of work. Had the political bickering over the money stretched into December, the MTA’s authority to pay for ongoing capital work would have run dry, and the agency would have had to shutdown some projects. As it stands, the MTA had to curtail some impending work, and one of those victims was the MetroCard replacement effort.
When last we visited this topic, the MTA had issued plans to institute a new fare payment system by the beginning of 2020 and phase out the MetroCards by the end of 2022. Now, though, thanks to Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s delays, the MTA had to hold back the RFP for the new fare payment system. Thus, the MetroCard replacement now won’t be ready for customer use until mid-2020, and the MTA expects to complete deployment of whatever the next gen fare payment technology will be until the middle of 2023. Six months may not sound like a lot, but it could potentially be a costly half a year for the MTA and its riders.
It’s not clear how much this will cost the MTA, but there’s certainly a cost involved. When the MTA began the latest push to implement a new fare payment technology, they originally targeted late 2019 as the date for deployment date. After 2019, the cost to maintain the current MetroCard system will skyrocket, as the MTA’s original contracts expire. With what will be a 30-year-old technology still in use, the cost to keep everything up and running will be high, and a six-month delay adds to these expenses. One way or another, riders will be footing the bill, and all of that political bickering will have a real consequence long after Cuomo and de Blasio are no longer holding their respective offices. Don’t let anyone tell you these funding fights don’t matter.
For the MTA, the problem is still one of execution. Ideally, in eight (!) years, the new fare payment system will be ready, but the MTA is still struggling with what this system will be and how it will be implemented. The agency wants to implement a system that relies on a contactless bankcard, smartphone or MTA-issued card, and it must include a new back-end system supporting payment and other financial functions along with a web-based interface for users to refill cards. Certain board members — such as Fernando Ferrar — have begun to question why the MTA is reinventing the wheel when contactless fare payment systems have become the norm throughout the world, but the agency is intent on finding that gem.
If all goes according to the new plan, the MetroCard replacement contract will be awarded in January of 2017 with design, development, testing and installation set to last around 42 months. The MTA’s best laid plans gang aft agley, and they aren’t being helped by recalcitrant politicians using budgetary debates to further petty political disputes. But here we are, and another six months we must wait. That is a real, tangible consequence with real, tangible costs which all will fall on transit riders’ wallets come 2023.