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.