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.