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Metro's Plans For Modern Fare Payment System Delayed — No Word On How Long

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New fare gates were only available in 10 rail stations, including Gallery Place-Chinatown, pictured.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
New fare gates were only available in 10 rail stations, including Gallery Place-Chinatown, pictured.

Trains are not the only things arriving late to Metrorail stations. The transit authority’s plans to install a modern fare payment system are delayed, and Metro is not sure how long the delay may last.

More than two years after awarding a $184 million contract to Accenture to first test and then fully deploy 1,000 new rail fare gates, 450 fare vending machines, and 1,500 bus payment targets, it is unclear when the transition from the current SmarTrip system may begin. Metro has paid the global technology services firm $23 million to date.

Metro hired Accenture to install near field communication technology at the new gates, allowing riders to tap or wave their chip-enabled credit cards, government IDs, or smartphones to pay their fares from a personal account.

A “design/build/test” phase was supposed to begin this year, according to Metro documents. A phased deployment of the new system was scheduled to begin in 2017, with SmarTrip phased out over two to four years.

But a shoddy pilot program last year left Metro will little choice to pause the process. After hoping for broad participation from riders — 3,000 signed up — only 400 people participated. The new fare gates were placed at just 10 rail stations and payment targets aboard only 50 buses. The parking payment technology was put off because of a delay in the software’s delivery.

Moreover, riders who participated in the pilot program say they were unable to try their preferred devices at the gates. Chris Zimmerman, a 35-year-old management consultant who rides Metrorail, was unable to use his smartphone but did receive a chip-enabled payment card in the mail from Metro.

“It was sort of a proxy Metro card,” Zimmerman said. “I have a perfectly capable iPhone that can do near field communications and I didn’t get a chance to test that.”

The scarcity of new gates also made testing difficult, Zimmerman said.

“You had to find two stations that you could enter and exit from,” he said. “I live in the District of Columbia and going from Gallery Place to Dupont or U Street or wherever else I am going, it was hard to find stations where I could tap out of the system.”

In a statement, Metro acknowledged the delay.

“We recognize that payment technology is a key part of the customer experience, and that implementing a new generation system will be a major investment for the region. That's why we are going to take the time to get this right,” said the transit authority’s statement.

The statement did not entirely explain the reasons for proceeding slowly, but did refer to “areas that need to be addressed and questions that need to be resolved.”

“For example, we are working now with the vendor to determine how the customer transition would be supported, particularly as the market has not yet been saturated with chip enabled cards. We are also taking this opportunity to review learnings from other transit systems,” the statement said.

The Chicago Transit Authority provides a cautionary tale. The CTA hired the tech firm Cubic to build its Ventra transit card system. Soon after it launched, commuters began complaining about glitches, and the CTA was forced to restore old fare options.

Metro intends to keep SmarTrip readers on its fare gates while transitioning to the new technology – if and when the transition begins. Accenture declined to answer any questions about its $184 million contract and referred a WAMU reporter to Metro’s written statement.

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