By Vincent Barone
The MTA has taken a major step in retiring the MetroCard, beginning a six-year process to replace it with a tap-based system that will allow commuters to use a variety of payment methods, including smartphones, digital wallets or proprietary cards to pay for their rides.
The changes, approved unanimously by the agency's Finance Committee on Monday, will begin rolling out in the form of bank cards and smartphone payments on 500 station turnstiles and 600 buses by the spring of 2019. The system will be available citywide by September 2020 and the MetroCard is expected to be completely phased out by 2023.
MTA Chairman Joe Lhota championed the new system as cheaper, more reliable and an effective consolidation of all the agency's services.
"Whether it's on subway or bus, Long Island Rail Road or Metro-North, it's going to be a ubiquitous system," Lhota said during a brief news conference Monday. "You can do it with a certain type of a debit card or credit card or with your phone. There are going to be numerous ways."
The committee voted to approve a $573 million contract with Cubic Transportation Systems, which operates the MetroCard as well as fare payment systems in London, Chicago and Sydney and Brisbane, Australia. Cubic was one of several finalists vying for the contract. The contract will now move to a full MTA board vote on Wednesday.
The agency has already begun internally testing mobile phone payments at select, retrofitted subway turnstiles around the city, as first reported by amNewYork. As part of a limited pilot, the agency plans to roll out these scanners at turnstiles in 14 key stations around the city before the end of the year, allowing for Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road riders to pay for subway access through the MTA's mobile ticketing app, eTix.
Transit experts believe that moving to the new technology could eventually help transform the MTA commute -- similar to how the introduction of the MetroCard in 1993 paved the way for free transfers and time-based fare payments.
Moving to what's described as an open fare payment model can, in part, speed up buses through all-door boarding and bring a wider range of fare plans to make the subway system more affordable, according to the Regional Plan Association, which published a policy brief last year on the MTA's next fare payment model.
"The introduction of the MetroCard led to the most dramatic increase in subway ridership in history," the planning organization said in a statement. "Moving to an open payment system has the possibility to be just as transformative by speeding up buses, improving fare enforcement, reducing congestion and improving accessibility and affordability of the system."
Lhota said implementing all-door bus boarding will be a priority as the technology comes online. The chairman added that he's already spoken with Polly Trottenberg, the commissioner of the city's Department of Transportation, about a related pilot.
"People can get on much faster, which is helpful to get them moving into that very congested traffic," Lhota said.
The MTA in years past has been criticized for dragging its feet in embracing modern fare technology. The authority had worried that it would switch to a new payment method only for it to become quickly outdated by some rapidly emerging, unforeseen technology.
"Sometimes we move at the pace of blind snails," said MTA board member Susan Metzger on Monday, who feared history is set to repeat itself. "This is a lengthy, 20-year contract."
The MTA said its contract provides protections for any changes in the industry.
The new system will help the MTA move away from costly elements of fare collection -- like the handling of cash and deployment of MetroCards. The technology effectively contracts much of that work out to third parties, according to Lhota.
MTA board member Andrew Albert welcomed the end of "please swipe again" messages at turnstiles.
"Once MetroCards are phased out, you won't have to pay employees to clean the turnstiles. You won't have to be stuck behind someone who doesn't know exactly the right way to swipe," Albert said.
"There are just so many good reasons to do this," he added, addressing the MTA. "God speed to you."
Board member Larry Schwartz, chair of the Finance Committee, butted in: "And God help you if you fall behind schedule."