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For Metro, the end of a farecard era has arrived

Metro announced months ago that it planned to say goodbye to paper farecards, requiring subway riders to use only plastic SmarTrip cards as they enter and leave stations.

Now, the time has come.

Starting Sunday, the transit agency said, fare gates in its 91 rail stations will no longer accept paper cards, meaning the end is here for Metro’s original “fare media,” in use since the subway’s birth in 1976.

“Since December 2015, Metro’s 450 blue fare-vending machines have been dispensing SmarTrip cards rather than paper farecards, and today, paper farecards account for less than 0.5 percent of all Metrorail transactions,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. It described Sunday as “a key milestone on Metro’s year-long phase-out of the outdated fare media.”

Passengers with old paper farecards still in their wallets “may transfer the value to a SmarTrip card by using the brown vending machines at Metrorail stations or at any Metro sales office through June 30.” After that, no matter how much credit remains on a paper card, its only value will be nostalgic.

In June 2014, when Metro first announced its plan to do away with paper farecards, the agency’s sales director, Adam McGavock, described what happens when a subway rider sticks a paper card in any of the rail system’s 1,000 or so fare gates.

“What pulls your card in is a big rubber belt,” he said. “It’s motorized and running on a bunch of pulleys, and the pulleys have to be lubricated. The belt has to be tensioned and adjusted. It has to have powder put on it to maintain the exact right stickiness and durometer.

“So the belt grabs your card and drags it across the mag-stripe reader. If you opened up the gate, we’d recognize the magnetic D-pad reader, like you see on an old reel-to-reel tape deck. Those have to be cleaned with rubbing alcohol and a Q-Tip. Then there’s a rubber stamp that has to go into ink and stamp the value on your card — boom, like that — before it pops back out.”

“I mean, really, it’s a miracle of engineering,” McGavock said. “When you look at how this thing works, that it actually functions as well as it does, it’s a brilliantly made machine — for 1968.”

Even with 95 percent of Metro passengers using SmarTrip cards, fare machines had been dispensing about 2 million paper cards per month, Metro said. That took a cumulative toll on the gear-and-pulley machinery of the fare gates, which required regular costly maintenance. Limiting the subway fare system to SmarTrip cards only is expected to significantly reduce those costs, Metro said.

Metro introduced SmarTrip cards in 1999 in an effort to move customers away from paper. The electronic SmarTrip card readers, with no moving parts, were installed in the existing gates.