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.