Two years after Metro canceled a $25-million pilot for mobile fare payment because of a lack of interest, the agency says it intends to give it another shot — and get it right this time.
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 the way they wave their SmarTrip cards today.
“It’s remarkably elegant in it’s 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.”
Metro announced earlier this week that customers will be able to pay for their train and bus fares with their smartphones by the end of 2019. The app is expected to launch later this year, Garback said Thursday at a Metro board meeting.
The app is expected to be available for both iOS and Android operating systems, though 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 if smartphone-based payments might cause backups at the fare gates, referencing 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 simple 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 cars at select fare gates and bus fare boxes, the new system is expected to be available to all riders across Metro’s 91 stations and bus routes.
But there was little discussion of how Metro arrived at the decision develop the system. Metro’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, explained his thinking upon canceling the previous program.
“The market isn’t there,” Wiedefeld said in 2016 when the agency scrapped the pilot after spending $25 million. “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.
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.