Archive for MetroCard

The future of the Metrocard is a bit fuzzy. (Art by Lisa Scruggs. Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The future history of the Metrocard has been, for nearly a decade, maddeningly out of reach. Since 2006, the MTA has discussed, tested and discussed again plans for a contactless next-generation replacement for the Metrocard, and a certain combination of technological uncertainty and organizational inertia, the effort won’t be fully realized before 2019 when the costs to maintain the current Metrocard system start to climb. But taps, and not swipes, are on the way.

Now that the state has seemingly cleared the logjam that was the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan, the agency has started to take concrete steps to phase out the Metrocard. It began earlier this week with the release of a solicitation notice (pdf) in advance of an RFP that will be made available today. The MTA claims the RFP contains certain confidential information regarding the agency’s infrastructure, and it isn’t available to the public. But the agency has released enough detail either through the solicitation or in subsequent so that we have a general sense of what will go into the MTA’s tap-based contactless system. Adios, swipes.

First and foremost, despite what you might have read elsewhere, the Metrocard isn’t getting phased out next year or even next presidential election. We’ll have plenty of time for presidential candidates to mock their inability to swipe. Although the MTA hopes to begin phasing in the next generation fare payment system by around June of 2018, much as tokens weren’t retired until nearly nine years after the introduction of the Metrocard, the Metrocard won’t be retired immediately. When last we checked in on this project, the MTA expected to phase out Metrocards by the end of 2023, but an MTA spokesman told me on Tuesday that this is not a definite timeline at this point.

So what is this thing anyway? According to the MTA’s documents, we’ll be using some fare system “based on open bank card payment industry standards that will utilize contactless media, including contactless smart cards and mobile devices.” The MTA will likely use a proprietary card and offer a cash option for riders who don’t have bank accounts, smart cards or smart phones. “The key thing is broad support for all of our customers,” agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz told me. “We’re not leaving any customer behind in the transition.”

As part of the implementation, the MTA is going to maintain but rewire the current turnstiles. The RFP documents call for a supplier to install and maintain a TCP/IP ethernet-based communications network connecting fare collection equipment, including turnstiles, HEETs and payment vending machines. Still, the basis for the system is going to be contactless. The MTA will rely on bank cards, smart phones, or an MTA-issued card to process fares. This move will allow the MTA to lower the costs of fare collection and maintenance of a fare payment system. Only a small percentage of users will use the MTA’s own card, and the system — essentially next generation that doesn’t rely on a proprietary technology as, say, PATH’s SmartCard or London’s Oyster Card does — will be adaptable across MTA agencies.

One interesting part of the solicitation document concerns the fare future. The MTA wants its next generation fare payment technology to respond to “alternate fare structures…including fare capping and/or changes to the fare incentive structures.” In other words, the MTA wants something that could be used for fixed fares, a zone-based fare structure or even a time of day-based variable fare. The possibilities with a system that could allow for tap in and tap out are more expansive than today’s swipe in-only system. While the MTA has no plans to start exploring a variable fare structure, I have been told that the agency wants the ability to do so in the future.

So we get a few glimpses into the future and a bunch of uncertainty. The MTA’s initial contract for this new system will run for 69 months from the date of contract award, but the MTA doesn’t expect Metrocards to be phased out within six years from now. So there will be some period of overlap and some period of exploration as the MTA receives RFP responses.

Yet, the overarching questions are whether and when the MTA can pull this off. The agency’s last true systemwide technological upgrade effort was the introduction of the Metrocard two decades ago, and now they’re going to try again with something that is essentially a new technology built on industry standards and evolving technology. We’ll see how this goes, but one thing is for certain: The Metrocard — and that message urging us to please swipe again — is on borrowed time. How much borrowed time remains to be seen.

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An update in the MTA Board materials shows how the MetroCard replacement has been delayed six months.

An update in the MTA Board materials shows how the MetroCard replacement has been delayed six months.

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.

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The MTA has made it easy to zero your pay-per-ride card. (Via I Quant NY)

We start tonight, begrudgingly but admirably, with I Quant New York. Last year, this website made a huge deal about the amount of money you could put on a MetroCard for an even amount with the bonus. It was something blown completely out of proportion as the ability to refill a MetroCard essentially ad nauseam prevents monetary loss by anyone paying attention. Cards that expire with money left can be transferred to an active card by any station agent no matter how begrudgingly accepting they are of this aspect of their job.

But the drum was beaten nearly to death, and in a victory for transparency, the MTA has added a new option to the MetroCard Vending Machine that allows you to buy a card that will leave $0.00 left over. Once the MTA started instituting bonuses of varying percentages at odd dollar amounts, the math became too complex to perform on a whim in front of a machine, but the agency — whether to capture dollars via unused fare media or otherwise — hadn’t introduced the concept of an even-amount purchase. Now, you can spend $27.25, get a $3 bonus and have 11 rides (so long as you don’t use the AirTrain). Voila. It’s magic.

In other news, there are a lot of service changes this weekend. In fact, the only weekend lines without some sort of advisory are the L and the G trains — a reality that probably fits Alanis Morisette’s weird definition of irony. But while the number of advisories seems steep, these aren’t terrible. Except for certain changes to the 7, J/M and 1 trains, the changes don’t touch most subway riders. It will be OK. And even though a bunch of North Brooklyn businesses are raising a stink about upcoming L train work, there’s no better time to take trains out of service than on the weekends. That the weekends are becoming more and more popular is an issue in and of itself, but for now, this is the solution. After the jump are this week’s changes. Read More→

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The Citizens Budget Commission believes a high cap on unlimited MetroCards could alleviate some of the MTA’s budgetary woes. (Source: CBC)

I love my Unlimited MetroCard. I’ve been using one for years, and it makes using the subway essentially free. I pay once per month — in my case, on a pre-tax basis — and get a card that simply tells me to “Go.” I can swipe in at Grand Army Plaza and take a 2 or 3 to Franklin Ave. without thinking about the cost or a subsequent card purchase. I can hop on a bus without a thought, and in fact, the more I ride, the better a deal I get from my unlimited card.

In a very real sense, as I wrote half a decade ago, the Unlimited MetroCards ushered in a revolution in New York City transit history. As then-Gov. George Pataki noted in the late 1990s, ”The goal” with these MetroCards “was very simply to empower the rider. Empower the person who takes the subway and the person who takes the bus by giving them the broadest possible range of options as to how they want to choose to use the mass transit system.”

And it worked. The average cost per ride a subway rider must pay declined precipitously, and only recently, through aggressive fare hikes, has the MTA clawed back revenue it lost to these unlimited cards. Still, the MTA drew in more in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1996 before unlimited ride cards were introduced than it does today. Furthermore, ridership has spiked — to over 6 million per day at times during peak ridership seasons last fall — and the MTA’s fare discounts push ridership.

But has the unlimited ride card outlived its useful life? That’s the question New York City’s Citizens Budget Commission posed recently. The independent group argues that, with ridership up and demand greater than subway supply, the MTA could incrementally rollback the incentives from the unlimited ride cards. After all, in the 1990s, the agency had to incentivize riders to return to a restored system, but today, the system sells itself. By capping unlimited ride cards at levels beyond the reach of all but the power users, the MTA could, they argue, draw in an additional $93 million a year.

Here’s their take:

The need for increased fare revenue need not be met exclusively through current practices of raising base fares and adjusting discounted prices. The MTA can generate revenue by capping the number of rides permitted on the 7-day and 30-day passes. Unlike recent fare increases hitting nearly every straphanger, the caps would provide needed revenue while affecting fewer riders, many who now enjoy very deep discounts, and would still retain heavily discounted fares.

Based on data provided by the MTA for October 2013, riders used 7-day passes for 45 million rides per month and 30-day passes for 66 million rides per month. These rides can be attributed to an estimated 2.8 million 7-day passes and 1.1 million 30-day passes. At a price of $30 the break-even number of rides for a 7-day pass was 13; for a 30-day pass at $112 the number was 48 rides. (Both calculations use the $2.38 fare available with a volume discount.) Rides above these numbers are effectively “free” for the pass holder.

Each “free” ride represented $2.38 in foregone revenue assuming the unlimited passes were eliminated and passengers purchased volume discount rides instead. The monthly number of “free” rides on the unlimited passes is estimated at 28.4 million. This equals about $67 million in foregone revenue monthly, or $807 million annually. Since a significant share of unlimited pass purchasers does not actually use the cards enough to reach the break-even point, these “unused” rides are extra revenue for the MTA. If this extra revenue was also foregone, the net gain from eliminating the unlimited passes would be $619 million annually. But eliminating unlimited passes would be a radical change, causing hardship for many straphangers and undermining the sense of convenient mobility the passes are intended to promote. A fairer strategy is to cap the number of rides on these passes at a number above the break-even point.

The CBC acknowledges that the MTA hasn’t made enough information available to assess the proper cut-off for unlimited ride cards, but they assume a hair over three swipes per day, an exceedingly high volume of rides. Limiting pay-per-rides to 22 swipes per 7 days or 92 per 30 days could lead to eliminating nearly 4 million rides that are free — that is, they are taken after the breakeven point on MetroCards. The unlimited ride cards would still be a great deal, but the MTA would capitalize on very high volume users (and those who try to defraud the system by selling swipes) to the tune of $7.8 million a month.

Part of me hates this idea. The psychological benefits of a true unlimited ride card encourage transit use at a time when New York City’s transit advocates should do all they can to keep residents out of private automobiles. It cuts against the grain of environmental advocacy, congestion pricing proponents and Vision Zero efforts to add any new psychological barrier, albeit a small one, to transit use.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to deny that revenue is revenue. The CBC estimates that only 60,000 30-day card users and around 415,000 7-day card users would exceed their lofty cap, and those figures are only 15 percent of all 7-day card users and 5 percent of 30-day users, relatively small percentages overall. It’s an idea that warrants some debate and discussion. As the CBC says, “Unlike general fare increases affecting nearly every straphanger, the caps would provide financial benefits while affecting only the relatively few riders who use their 7-day and 30-day passes most heavily and would still benefit from discounted fares.”

Categories : MetroCard, MTA Economics
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The MTA's latest projections for the rollout of the fare-payment system that will replace the MetroCard.

The MTA’s latest projections for the rollout of the fare-payment system that will replace the MetroCard.

Now that the MTA Board committee materials officially recognize that the 7 line extension won’t open until at least the 2nd quarter of 2015 (something we knew last month), we can move onto another project that is oft- and again-delayed: the MetroCard replacement. According to the latest Capital Program Oversight Committee materials, the MTA’s next-gen fare payment system won’t be ready until 2020 if all goes according to plan. Systemwide rollout won’t wrap until 2022 under the current schedule.

I’ve often said that the MTA’s latest technological advances are always five years away. Through the right circumstances, we finally get to enjoy countdown clocks on the A Division trains and BusTime through the city, but it seems that the MTA keeps promising B Division countdown clocks in “3-5 years” and has been for longer than 3-5 years. The MetroCard replacement meanwhile has been five years away from nigh on five years now. And the clock is ticking.

With the current MetroCard technology, now well over 20 years, the MTA faces a sunset date. After or around 2019, the cost of maintain the current MetroCard infrastructure will spike as maintenance contracts expire and parts grow harder to find. Thus, there has been some urgency surrounding the 2019 deadline for the introduction of a new fare payment technology. Various stops and starts, driven, in part, by rapid turnover atop the MTA, have delayed the project, but as Michael DeVitto discussed at my Problem Solvers session last March, the MTA is on track to do, well, something within a few years. Now, however, the timeline is slipping.

According to the latest Board documents, the MTA is gearing up to pass a major milestone in its efforts to find a replacement for the MetroCard that can serve for the next few decades. The new solution has to be integrated and adaptable with a contact-less payment system and a new backend for payment processing. By the end of next month, the MTA expects to wrap the business requirements development contract and will issue an RFP in late winter. The MTA expects to award a contract in mid-2016, and a deployment timeline takes shape from there.

According to the MTA docs, system design will run for 13 months and back-end development for two years. Contactless readers will then be installed in buses and subways over the following 21 months before vending machines are outfitted throughout the system. Much like the MetroCard’s initial rollout, the MTA expects to bring the entire system online within three calendar years at a cost of $450 million. But we know how reliable those cost estimates have been in the past.

These are positive concrete steps, but the problem is that Transit has to keep the current MetroCard system up and running until system-wide rollout is complete. In essence, the agency has to run and maintain two systems — one three decades old and one brand new — at the same time, and since the new system is now scheduled to be online after 2019, the MTA’s costs are going to jump. In fact, an Indepdent Engineering Consultant notes that the budget “may not be adequate” when considering the costs of maintain the MetroCard system in a state of good repair beyond 2019 and through 2023.

So where exactly does this leave us? The MTA is still five years away from a replacement for the MetroCard, and it seems nearly definite that they’ll miss their own 2019 deadline by a considerable margin even if all goes according to plan. This is unfortunately a common theme with technological upgrades and a challenge the MTA faces in convincing politicians it deserves $32 billion to improve the system. They need to deliver something at some point, but five years away is a frustratingly shifting target that seems to remain perennially five years away.

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When I first launched the “Problem Solvers” series with the Transit Museum, I knew that I wanted to focus a session on the future of the MetroCard. For a few years, I’ve tried to schedule a sit-down with the right someone at the MTA to discuss the agency’s next-generation fare payment plans and the prognosis for the familiar piece of plastic New Yorkers carry with themselves 24-7.

At first, I couldn’t get anyone because the MTA didn’t really know what it was going to do replace the MetroCard; it knew only that by 2019 it would be too expensive to maintain the current system. But now I have some exciting news: The next “Problem Solvers” Q-and-A session, set for March 19, will focus on the MetroCard’s future. Joining me at 6:30 p.m. at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn will be Michael DeVitto, Vice President and Program Executive for fare payment programs at NYC Transit. We will discuss the future of the MetroCard, current initiatives on new fare technology, and all that goes into designing a fare system for the city’s transit network. We will, of course, talk about progress toward a new fare payment system.

“Problem Solvers” is a free event hosted by the Transit Museum, and this session is slated for Wednesday, March 19th at 6:30 p.m. (with doors at 6). Please RSVP here and join me for what should be an illuminating and informative conversation on a topic I’ve followed closely over the past seven and a half years.

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I’ve been sitting on a bunch of open tabs for a little while and thought it would be a good idea to get around to sharing these. These are stories I found interesting or newsworthy but just haven’t had an opportunity to post here.

$500 million from unused MetroCards

I’ve talked a bit about the MTA’s new green fee and the money realized from unused MetroCards, and a recent piece in The Times put those dollars into context. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the MTA collected half a billion dollars from unused fares. Since straphangers have to pre-pay for MetroCards, dollars that are left on the cards long after their expiration dates remain with the MTA, and on an annual basis, the money is a small, but important, part of the agency’s annual budget.

Unused fares isn’t something that’s come about because of the MetroCard era. Back in the day, New Yorkers would buy tokens and never use them. They would get lost, get forgotten, get overlooked, and the MTA could collect those fares. But today with uneven bonuses that make the math of a free fare more difficult, more dollars are left on cards that expire, and the $1 fee for new MetroCards means revenue as well.

As the MTA phases out the MetroCard — the topic of my March 19 Problem Solvers session — these unused fares may diminish a bit. The next system may well be a pay-as-you-go set-up that doesn’t focus around any proprietary fare collection system. While the MTA will lose the money from unused fares, it will also drastically reduce the amount it has to spend to collect fares. That’s a win for the customers, and a win for the transit agency as well.

Send the 3 to the Bronx

As New York City subways go, the 3 train runs an odd route. It stretches deep into Brooklyn but then stops short of anything in Manhattan. It terminates at 148th St. near the Lenox Yard and goes no further north. In a piece at Welcome2TheBronx, Richard Garey argues for extending the train to the Bronx. With the need for some cross-Bronx subway service and the incoming soccer facility near Yankee Stadium, the time may be right to look at some subway extension options.

Garey’s post focuses on the 3 train as a way to serve neighborhoods that once enjoyed streetcar service and now don’t, but I think he has the routing wrong. The 3 shouldn’t end up as another north-south route in the Bronx but could instead cut across the borough, serving areas that don’t have good cross-Bronx transit options while boosting subway service. It is, after all, a fast ride downtown on the IRT express. Without a massive infusion of cash, we’re just dreaming, but it’s an intriguing proposition after all.

Unhappiness at 149th Street

For years, I’ve been using the 149th Street-Grand Concourse subway stop as a transfer point on the way to Yankee Stadium, and for years, it has been one disgusting station. The walls were marred by leaking pipes, and on the way home from a World Series game in 2001, my sister and I saw squirrel-sized rats on the uptown 2/5 platform. It was very, very unpleasant.

Recently, the station underwent a renovation, but a few area residents are unhappy. One transit buff took a video tour of the station post-renovation and discovered some subpar work. Meanwhile, another group of residents wants to restore elevator service that was shuttered 40 years ago. As best as I can tell, the elevator in question went from the 2/5 platform to street level. The MTA has no money, and protestors hope Mayor de Blasio can help out. I wouldn’t hold me breath.

Countdown clocks for the SIR

Thanks to an infusion of funds from Council member Vincent Ignizio, four stations along the Staten Island Railway — Great Kills, Eltingville, Annadale and Huguenot — now have countdown clocks. The work is part of a $675,000 initiative funded by Ignizio’s office that will eventually include a Subway Time component that will add these SIR stations to the MTA’s tracking app. For now, the information is available on the St. George-bound side, but Tottenville-bound service will have its time in the sun as well. If you pay for it, it will come.

Twenty years ago, Rudy Giuliani was our mayor, Bill Clinton the president and Mike Gallego the Yankees’ starting short stop. Twenty years ago also marked the day the MetroCard made its New York City debut. On January 6, 1994, at two stations in Lower Manhattan, the MetroCard made its debut as riders at the IRT’s City Hall stop and the BMT’s Whitehall St. station could swipe in with the blue-and-yellow pieces of plastic.

Those first cards deducted $1.25 per swipe and MTA officials spoke of the ways in which this new payment system would change the fare structure throughout the city. “It’s a new era for our customers,” then-MTA Chairman Peter E. Stangl said. “It opens up the possibility for fare structures that over time will help us increase our ridership, which is why we’re in business.”

Three years later, in 1997, every station was equipped with MetroCard-ready turnstiles, and the MTA could begin offering unlimited ride cards thus realizing Stangl’s words. Those unlimited fare cards revolutionized transit and lead to a massive increase in ridership. The costs are higher today, but the bulk discount options remain a good deal for daily riders.

Over the years, the MetroCard has had its ups, downs and “please swipe again at this turnstile” moments. It took nearly 19 years for display screens to show the expiration dates for unlimited cards, and lately, both the fronts and backs of the cards have been for sale. I’ve always loved my unlimited MetroCard though through thick and thin.

In commemorating today’s anniversary, the MTA put out a brief release on the MetroCard’s two decades. “You can’t think of New York City without thinking of the MetroCard,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said. “After two decades, it still serves millions of bus and subway riders daily offering a great transportation value. Of course, we are well on our way to developing the next generation of fare payment, part of our effort to upgrade and modernize the City’s mass transit system.”

Echoing Bianco’s line, the MTA says the agency is “working on something even better,” but we still don’t know what that will be. The replacement project had foundered over the past six or seven years and seemed rudderless last February. But the MTA knows that the costs of maintaining the twenty-year old system are continuing to creep upward, and a replacement is on tap. (That too is the top of my March 19 Problem Solvers session.)

Today, we’ll tip our caps to that ubiquitous piece of plastic. Please, swipe again.

Categories : MetroCard
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I have, I must confess, a problem. I can’t throw out MetroCards any longer. I receive my 30-day card through a WageWorks, and I don’t pay the $1 surcharge each month. Still, at the end of the month, I can’t bring myself to throw out the empty card; it’s like flushing a dollar down the toilet each month.

The MTA’s $1 surcharge is something of a new creation. Discussed for years, it arrived in February with some fanfare. Initial coverage indicated that the MTA had made more money than expected as New Yorkers grew accustomed to reusing their empty MetroCards, and litter around turnstiles seemed to vanish as well. By August, the MTA estimated that the total impact on its bottom line would be a net gain of a hair under $20 million as the total from fare media liability — the industry term for unused but prepaid MetroCard balances declined.

So how’s it doing? Based on the numbers available, everything seems to be on target, but that’s not, surprisingly, the gist of this post from the IBO. Doug Turetsky of the city’s Independent Budget Office offers up his take on the perception of a decline in fare media liability and the overall impact of the $1 surcharge. He writes:

Last year, the jar was pretty full since it held more than $95 million—an unusually large amount that resulted from transit riders stocking up on MetroCards prior to the December 2010 fare increase and then some of those cards expiring with funds left unused…But the jar may not be nearly as full in the future. The reason is that in March New York City Transit started to charge riders $1 every time they bought a new card rather than refill the one they already had (at least until that card expires and you can then get a free replacement). The transit agency expects fare media liability will drop to the more typical amount of about $52 million this year and, with a full year of the replacement fee in place, fall to $41 million in 2014.

…as the transit agency’s financial plan anticipates, there will still be a stash of unspent change on expired MetroCards. Some of that will come from tourists and other short-term or occasional riders who buy a card and wind up not using all of the money placed on it.

Many everyday riders also will contribute to the ongoing accumulation of fare media liability. The transit agency’s method of providing discounts ensures this…Many cards are likely to be lost or forgotten before the 5 percent bonus adds up to a ride or they will expire with an odd amount left on them. Although the transit agency gives riders two years to replace an expired card and have the funds on it transferred to a new one, many old cards are also likely to slip away with unused value.

These findings from the IBO aren’t a surprise. Since unveiling the so-called green fee in 2011, the agency has made clear that fare media liability would be likely to decline by around 20 percent while the fees and savings in MetroCard production costs would more than off-set the revenue loss. Whether it’s more honest to balance the books on a $1 surcharge or the expectation of unspent MetroCard swipes is a question I’ll leave up to you.

Meanwhile, I have 11 MetroCards accumulating all over the place. I’ve used one or two of them as pay-per-ride spares to be broken out in the event of an emergency, but otherwise, I guess I’ll sit on them until the expiration date on the back. Eventually, the MetroCard with its artificial expiration date and prickly magnetic strip will be a thing of the past, but for now, that $1 fee seems to be doing exactly what it was intended to do.

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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.

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