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Metro May Dump New Fare Gate Payment System After Lackluster Trial

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The new fare gates being piloted would let riders pay with credit cards, federal government IDs, or smartphones.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
The new fare gates being piloted would let riders pay with credit cards, federal government IDs, or smartphones.

A 90-day test program for a modern fare payment system at Metro train stations, buses, and parking lots has left the transit authority’s leadership unimpressed and considering dumping it altogether, pending more testing and further review.

Full implementation of the $250 million system already is a projected $44 million over budget, and although 3,000 Metro riders signed up for the pilot program, only 400 participated.

The new fare gates will employ near field communication technology, allowing riders to tap their credit cards, government IDs, or smartphones and have the fare immediately deducted from their accounts. If deployed across the Metro system, it will phase out SmarTrip cards, now used by about 90 percent of riders, in the next two to four years.

While the pilot program appeared to work effectively for the few who used it, Metro conceded testing across media was insufficient.

“Media types specified for testing included… smart card, NFC equipped mobile phone, contactless credit card and two versions of government ID cards,” according to transit authority documents prepared for the board of directors (pdf).

“Some of these media, notably the contactless credit cards and NFC equipped mobile phones, are not currently in extensive use due to either the recent introduction of the technology or limited distribution by providers in the U.S. These circumstances, along with the detail information needed to reconcile and review test results, limited the readiness of customer participants to use these media types,” the documents said.

Some board members said Metro should not commit to such an expensive program until additional testing demonstrates the new system actually will be an upgrade over SmarTrip.

“We have to have a more vigorous, vibrant pilot before we can decide whether this project should go forward,” said attorney Michael Goldman, Maryland’s representative on Metro’s board.

The pilot program placed the new fare gates at 10 rail stations and aboard 50 buses. Parking lots could not be tested because of a delay in the delivery of the software.

“The problem here is this is a kind of invent-your-own unique system when the current system works well. It works well in New York. So why we have to find a WMATA-unique program…is befuddling me,” Goldman said.

Metro interim general manager Jack Requa, in remarks to reporters, was unable to explain why full implementation is forecast to go over budget. He also would not commit to the going forward with the all-electronic payment system for which Metro awarded Accenture a $184 million contract in Jan. 2014.

“We need to make some improvements to a system that is 40 years old in some form or another. This is the current proposal to do that, and that is what we are evaluating,” Requa said.

When pressed by a reporter whether Metro may dump the “next generation” system altogether, Requa said, “That’s an option.”

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