On the heels of securing a regionwide commitment for dedicated funding, Metro is embarking on an ambitious plan for the future, including large-scale safety and reliability improvements, the next generation of rail cars and, most immediately, a mobile payment system that will allow riders to pay fares with their smartphones.
But the agency’s plans do not include an expansion of its rail fleet, a sign that sagging ridership caused by chronic service disruptions and riders having more options is not expected to pick up significantly in coming years.
“What it does mean, and you’re starting to see that, is now we can start to plan longer-term . . . to basically get at the range of issues that we have to deal with,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Thursday, referring to what the $500 million in annual dedicated funding will mean for the agency.
Although the additional money will not kick in until fiscal 2020, Wiedefeld said the commitment allows Metro to move forward with its capital program with the confidence that the funding will be available.
The agency, for example, is planning for its next-generation series of rail cars — the 8000s. Plans call for at least 248 to replace aging 2000- and 3000-series models, which make up close to a third of Metro’s fleet.
The 8000-series cars will include more grab handles, larger informational displays with real-time data and power outlets to charge cellphones and other devices. Board documents say the cars, which will begin to arrive in 2023, also will be more energy efficient.
Some riders were disappointed that the plans do not include “open gangways,” accordionlike passageways between cars that are set to be introduced on the New York subway’s next-generation cars. Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader said such rail cars work best in sets of four, but Metro’s maintenance shops are configured for married pairs — meaning a wholesale shop overhaul would be required to accommodate them.
Still, Wiedefeld said the planning for the 8000-series reflects a forward-looking mentality at the agency.
“We’re starting to think that way because we can start to count on those dollars coming in . . . where we can start to make those commitments to meet that,” he said.
Metro was already in the planning stages for its next generation of rail cars. It issued a request for information to potential vendors in February 2017.
Leader said Metro’s fleet would eventually need to grow to about 1,200 to account for future maintenance and service needs — including the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County — but with current ridership levels, there is no pressing need for an expansion.
Meanwhile, Metro’s intention to launch an app-based smartphone payment system caught riders by surprise this week. The agency had abandoned a pilot of a new fare-payment system in 2016 — after spending $25 million — citing a lack of interest from riders.
The agency will give the concept another shot, saying it has gained broad public acceptance. The system will rely on the same “near-field communication” (NFC) technology as the pilot but will use existing SmarTrip sensors, trimming the cost significantly from the $150 million in Metro’s earlier estimates.
The agency said the project will run about $10 million in capital costs.
“It gives us the ability to do that type of thing,” Wiedefeld said of the dedicated funding commitments. It was unclear whether the funding for the program would be drawn from the new revenue or whether the agreement simply gives Metro the flexibility to move forward with such plans.
The program is built around an all-purpose app that will serve as a “virtual SmarTrip” card, allowing users to reload their fare cards on the go and swipe their smartphones at fare gates and boxes.
“It’s remarkably elegant in its simplicity,” said Greg Garback, executive officer of Metro’s finance department. “And when we succeed or when we complete this, anywhere the SmarTrip logo is, you’ll be able to tap and enter and exit the system using that.”
The app is expected to launch later this year, Garback said Thursday at a Metro board meeting. It is expected to be available for iOS and Android operating systems, although the timelines for the launches could differ, the agency said.
“It’ll be the official [Metro] app, if you will,” Garback said. “It’ll have the look, feel, texture of a sophisticated” transit app. That includes features such as mobile reloads and auto-reload.
Metro said the fare-payment pilot launched in 2016 was ahead of the market for smartphone-based payments, but consumer interest has grown since then. The new program also addresses concerns board members expressed with the initial plan.
For example, board member Jim Corcoran asked whether smartphone-based payments might cause backups at the fare gates, referring to how mobile payments at Starbucks can sometimes take longer than traditional transactions.
Garback said payment speed has been accelerated significantly since the pilot.
But there were other concerns. Is the SmarTrip card, the only payment medium since the elimination of paper fare cards, being phased out?
No, Garback said. The app revolves around SmarTrip technology. And the new program is not an “open system” that allows for credit and debit card payments, like in other cities.
He described it as a “virtual SmarTrip card inside your mobile [phone].”
“We’re actually emulating a closed transit card. It just happens to change form from plastic to your phones,” he said.
Unlike the pilot program, which was limited to about 400 participants who could wave their smartphones or credit cards at select fare gates and bus fare boxes, the new system is expected to be available to riders across Metro’s 91 stations and all its bus routes.
But there was little discussion of how Metro arrived at the decision to develop the system. Wiedefeld explained his thinking upon canceling the previous program.
“The market isn’t there,” he said in 2016, when the agency scrapped the pilot. “In the pilot program, we couldn’t even get the right number of people to do the surveys. . . . There just aren’t enough people with [NFC] capabilities.”
Wiedefeld terminated a contract awarded in 2014 to technology firm Accenture. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said Metro and Accenture have severed ties, and the new app will be built on the SmarTrip platform with the existing provider, Cubic Transportation Systems.
Board member Tom Bulger asked Garback to walk through the steps Metro took in relaunching a smartphone-based payment system. “We hired Accenture,” Bulger said before Corcoran quickly cut him off, citing “litigation” concerns, without further explanation.
After the meeting, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said the dedicated funding agreements mark a “historic occasion for the region.” But they don’t take care of everything, he said, noting Metro’s need for a second Rosslyn throughway and a permanent solution to water infiltration on the Red Line, part of what the agency has estimated are about $10 billion in unfunded fixes.
“The celebration is, the $15 billion is going to help us the next 10 years,” Evans said. “Keep in mind that $10 [billion] is still out there.”