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Metro’s mobile fare payment system coming in 2020

Metro’s long awaited and eagerly anticipated mobile payment system is coming online in 2020, the transit agency said Thursday.

Sometime next year, riders will be able to use a virtual SmarTrip card stored in their Apple Wallet to tap in at fare gates. Riders also will be able to load value through their phones.

The feature will initially only be available for iPhones, but an Android version is being developed, officials said.

“It’s going to be a game changer for us,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said.

Metro’s attempts to create a mobile payment system began nearly five years ago when it launched a pilot program that allowed passengers to use their smartphones, debit and credit cards to pay for rides at 10 Metro stations and on six Metrobus routes.

A lack of interest led Metro to cancel the $25 million project months later. But the rapid development and growth in the use of smartphones as a ubiquitous “everytool” prompted Metro to try again.

On Thursday, at the same time Metro board members were being briefed on the near completion of mobile capability, the transit agency tweeted a photo of an iPhone with a SmarTrip card on the screen.

Use your smartphone to pay your Metro fare

Metro follows New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has started phasing in its mobile fare payment system, OMNY, or One Metro New York. OMNY works on all MTA buses on Staten Island and more than 30 subway stations, according to the MTA.

Metro, however, said that all of its stations and buses are phone ready, adding that workers have completed all necessary “back-end” work to equip gates and fare boxes with phone readers. Spokesman Dan Stessel said Metro’s capability will go live all at once across the entire transit system.

“Infrastructure in its current state is ready to go,” Stessel said.

The exact date when that will happen is unknown, but Apple phones and watches will see the benefit first, Metro officials said.

Android users should also be able to have access to a virtual card sometime next year. A Google spokesman said the company’s developers are working with Metro to roll out a Google Pay version of SmarTrip services sometime in 2020.

Metro says its new fare-payment app will be ‘remarkably elegant’

Stessel said Metro, meanwhile, will have its own app, which will work on both Android and Apple’s iOS platform, by July. The app will include a system in which users can tap their phones to station fare gates and access their SmarTrip accounts to reload credits or check their balances.

Once Metro riders create and link their accounts to a mobile card, they will no longer be able to use their physical fare cards, Stessel said. He said the transit agency has worked with Apple to ensure that if a rider’s phone dies, the card will still work using a small amount of emergency power that dead iPhones retain to quickly begin recharging once connected to a power source.

Many details continue to be worked out, Metro officials said.

The announcement of Smar­Trip mobile capability came during Metro’s last board meeting of the year, which featured a closed session during which board members discussed a potential four-year extension of a collective bargaining agreement with the transit union that represents most Metro workers, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.

Metro and its largest union reach surprise labor agreement that would avoid privatization

The surprise deal came earlier this week and was negotiated between Wiedefeld and ATU Local 689 President Raymond Jackson. The contract, if approved, will ultimately end the outsourcing of operations at a Metrobus garage in Lorton, Va., where workers have been on strike since late October, and plans to contract out operations of Phase 2 of the Silver Line.

Wiedefeld declined to release details of the agreement, but said it would allow Metro to improve customer service and concentrate on recruiting new riders.

“What it means hopefully is labor peace, and we can focus on the future together,” he said.

Also Thursday, board members unanimously approved a pilot program to test giving some low-income D.C. residents free and discounted-fare passes next year. The nearly $1 million research program by the Lab @ DC, a city research and innovation division, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-Pal, proposes tracking the trips of 2,500 low-income residents to see whether free or discounted fares lead to greater employment rates and an improved quality of life overall.

The program, which will be limited to recipients who qualify for federal food assistance, will not cost Metro; the pilot will pay the transit authority nearly $500,000 for the fare credits, board members were told.

“I think it’s a valuable initiative you’ve described here today,” Metro board member Steve McMillin told the director of the Lab @ DC.

Pilot program to test free Metro fare cards for low-income D.C. residents

Board members also took a second glance at the proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The spending plan would extend Metro service hours six days a week, create a flat weekend fare to attract more riders and raise fares for the first time in three years by about 22 cents per average trip.

The proposal, which also eliminates the $1.50 bus-to-rail transfer fee and maintains Metrobus fare prices, has won over many riders but remains months away from a vote.

Among those unhappy with the proposal are Metrobus riders who live in or near the neighborhoods of Burleith, Georgetown and Glover Park, where Metro officials have proposed eliminating or reducing service on several bus routes it considers a “redundancy,” according to agency records.

Among those being considered for elimination and combined into another route is the D2, which links Glover Park and Dupont Circle.

Several residents spoke out against the proposed change, saying it takes service from an area that has no Metro service and includes many seniors who do not have cars.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kishan Putta, a Burleith resident, told the board that the route is also important to doctors and patients at Georgetown University Medical Center.

“There’s no Metro; it’s the only way that many people rely on,” he said. “We’re trying to get more bus service, not cut it.”

Putta said he worried that not enough people in the surrounding neighborhoods know about Metro’s plans because they are being announced just before the holidays. He said the route elimination benefits no one.

“You don’t want people to be incentivized to drive,” he said. “That is not the incentive you want.”

Metro proposed budget includes a fare increase — and later hours

Metro officials also provided board members with an update on the issues they believe caused service suspensions and multiple delays on the Red Line on Tuesday.

“It was not good,” Wiedefeld said. “It was not where we want to be.”

Officials said Tuesday’s issues were caused by arcing insulators.

An insulator separates the electrified third rail from the track bed, and if it is damaged or worn out, current can flow to the ground, generating heat and igniting flammable materials in the area. Humidity and water can also cause the problem. The escape of electricity is called arcing.

Water infiltration has long been a problem in some of Metro’s oldest tunnels — particularly on the Red Line — and Wiedefeld said the agency is experimenting with a sealer that mining companies use to try to keep water from leaking through aging, porous tunnels. The test is ongoing, he said.