Now, Metro is poised to revamp the way passengers pay their fares. By July, the transit agency is expected to choose a contractor to lead the costly and complicated task of modernizing Metro’s fare-collection system.
Riders would no longer have to convert their money into Metro’s main currency — the $5 electronic SmarTrip card — to ride trains and buses. Instead, they would be able to wave a smart phone, key fob or credit card in front of a scanner as they board a bus or walk through a subway station fare gate.
“If you look at how people are making payments these days with their phones or the cards they already have in their wallet, that’s the way of the future,” said Carol Kissal, Metro’s chief financial officer. “That’s what we want to adopt.”
A lot is riding on the change, officials say. When Metro raises fares or offers a new discount, for example, it may have to spend as much as $1 million to have its fare-collection software reprogrammed by the company that owns the technology and software.
Metro says it wants to have a new system in place within four years. But it is a complicated, expensive undertaking, freighted with risk for a transit agency that in recent years has endured chronic service problems and striking safety failures.
General Manager Richard Sarles said it is time to make these changes because existing fare equipment, like a lot of the system, is worn out. “We’re rebuilding the system, and one of the things that our customers interface most with is the fare system,” he said. “Technology has improved, and we should bring that to the customer.”
The new technology is not expected to replace SmarTrip cards, which nearly 90 percent of Metro bus and rail riders use, and riders would still be able to pay with cash. But Metro officials said they expect that as more consumers shift to credit cards with a computer chip and smartphones with similar capability, they will choose a new way to pay fares.
Plans to upgrade Metro’s fare-payment system come as the transit agency is reaching a critical juncture in its 37-year-old life. Metro is the second-busiest subway system in the country, with about 750,000 rider trips taken daily on its rail system and 400,000 on its buses. By 2020, the Metrorail system is expected to reach its capacity of nearly 1 million passenger trips a day.
Implementing a new payment system promises to be a test of technology, logistics and timing. It will involve replacing the roughly 2,000 fare gates and 700 vending machines at all 86 stations, even as the transit system continues to collect fares from hundreds of thousands of passengers, many of them all too accustomed to missteps by Metro. Metro’s oversight of technology contracts has been faulted by the transit agency’s inspector general.