Update (1:20 p.m.): I’ve left the original post below in tact, but some of the key information regarding the universality of the new time-and-money MetroCards is wrong. For the corrected update on PATH and AirTrain functionality, please see this correction.
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When the MTA’s new fares arrive in March 3, a sneaky little surcharge will arrive with them. After years of talking about it, the MTA is finally implementing a $1 fee on all new MetroCards purchased via the system’s ubiquitous vending machines. As with many things in life, though, there’s almost an upside to this fee: The MTA will be implementing universal MetroCards that can carry both time and money. Sadly, though, the cards fall short of their promise.
Let’s start first with the good news: Beginning today, MetroCards can now hold any combination of unlimited rides and a dollar value. If you want a card with 30 days and $30 on it, now you can fulfill your MetroCard dreams. The vending machines, as the above photo collage shows, will offer up the existential choice of adding more time or adding more value to your MetroCard.
In a brochure released touting the changes, the MTA mentions the $1 surcharge as the driving force behind this change. “By refilling and reusing your current MetroCard, you will avoid this additional fee” of the surcharge, the agency says. The fee will not apply to reduced-fare MetroCards, transit benefit organization customers who get their MetroCards from employers or benefit providers, new cards purchased at out-of-system vendors, EasyPayXpress customers and those buying combination railroad/MetroCard tickets. It is designed to cut down on the $10 million the MTA spends annually on MetroCards currently.
So what’s the bad news? Well, these cards are basically just storage. There’s absolutely no flexibility in the way time and money are used, and a MetroCard holder with both time and money on his or her card must use up all of the time before the money becomes accessible. For instance, let’s say I buy a 30-day card and add $15 to the card. The first swipe on this card will start the 30-day counter, and only after the 30 days and only if there is no time refill on this card will I be able to access the $15.
Regular riders of the transit system’s legs that take cash only may be wondering about the value of such cards. Express bus riders, for instance, cannot combine an unlimited ride card and a cash card. But more importantly, these new “universal” cards don’t cut down on the need for two cards for PATH riders or those relying on the AirTrain. I can’t use a card with time and money to first get to Howard Beach and then swipe in at the AirTrain. I still have to use two separate cards for these two transactions, and the same applies to MetroCard users on PATH. It’s a shockingly inefficient limitation on a twenty-year-old piece of technology.
When I first got word of the universal MetroCard, I had high hopes for the program, but unless changes are made to the programming, it’s a rather disappointing debut. Without the flexibility of using money in money-only machines while time remains on the card, the universal MetroCard is simply good for storage. I guess I’ll have one less card to carry around in my wallet, but that’s just a consolation prize.