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Metro rolls out Android virtual fare card, considers fare cuts

The Board will vote on several proposal that could mean reductions in fares and increases in service

SmarTrip cards will be available virtually on Android phones starting Tuesday, Metro said. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Metro riders with Android phones were finally able to pay virtually starting Tuesday as the transit agency rolled out its version of SmarTrip for Google Pay.

The addition of the new payment method is just one new attraction Metro plans to unveil this week as part of the transit agency’s efforts to get riders back on trains and buses. Metro’s board is slated to vote Thursday on new fare changes that would lower the cost of weekend Metrorail trips, erase a long-standing fee to transfer between rail and bus and extend service hours on Metrorail. If approved, the changes would go into effect this summer.

Since September, iPhone users have had the capability to access their SmarTrip accounts from their phones using Apple’s virtual Wallet or via a new app Metro created, which allows users to pay, reload, check balances and receive real-time arrival and departure information, as well as special alerts. A similar app for Android and the use of Google Pay was supposed to be ready in November, but transit officials said testing took longer than expected.

Now, as coronavirus vaccination rates rise and the region continues lifting social and business restrictions, Metro hopes the ability to use mobile phones to board buses and trains will be an added convenience that will encourage more people to use public transportation.

“This means as the region reopens, everyone can go contactless and use their phones to ride on Metro,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “Today, people have the convenience of paying for just about anything using their phones, and now paying for a ride on Metro is just as easy as buying a cup of coffee.”

Metro and Apple roll out mobile payment system in virtual wallet and new app

Ninety-three percent of Metro riders have mobile phones, Wiedefeld said, and a large portion of Metrobus customers are Android users.

Now those riders with Android devices will be able to transfer an existing SmarTrip card to their phones or purchase new cards through the app, which is available from the Google Play Store. They also will be able to add money to cards, purchase weekly or monthly passes, access SmartBenefits virtually and set up an auto-reload function so they will never have to worry about adding funds.

Virtual fare cards can be used at all Metro parking lots and garages, as well as on all regional transit provider buses including ART, DASH, Fairfax Connector, Cue, Ride On, TheBus, Circulator, Loudoun County Transit and OmniRide, Metro said.

The transit agency said it will waive a $2 SmarTrip card fee for all Android users who purchase a virtual SmarTrip card between now and December.

The entire Metrorail system is now covered by wireless service

The virtual cards work when phones are awake and held within a few inches from fare targets. The SmarTrip app is available on phones running Android 9 and newer versions, Metro said. But users can create a new SmartTrip card in Google Pay on phones running Android 5 and newer by going to wmata.com/googlepay and following the instructions.

The rollout comes nearly four months after Metro added about 400 miles of cable and infrastructure along its tracks to enable wireless service throughout the underground tunnel system. While wireless service from all major carriers is strong enough on trains for riders to text and stream content underground during a ride, the expanded cell coverage provides added safety measures with enhanced ability to connect to police and first responders. Free WiFi is also available at all of Metro’s 91 stations.

Metro board members open to fare reduction, service changes to lure back riders

Metro started offering late-night bus service in June on 34 lines, all seven days until 2 a.m., to help meet demand of ridership on its buses, which have experienced a greater resurgence of riders since the pandemic began easing. Metrorail remains about 20 percent full when compared to pre-pandemic periods, Wiedefeld said.

The Metro board on Thursday also will consider proposals that would decrease wait times to 12 minutes or shorter on six rail and 20 bus lines, and extend Metrorail service to midnight throughout the week starting this summer and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday by fall. The board is also looking at making seven-day regional bus passes cheaper, making the $1.50 bus-rail transfer fees free, and charging riders $2 on weekends to ride Metrorail anywhere.

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said in a statement the fare changes “will make it easier for riders to return to Metro and give transit a try.”

Metro Board Finance Committee Chair Steve McMillin said in a statement that he believes expanding reliable, faster service throughout all hours of the day “will help attract more riders back to transit as the region reopens.”

“Throughout the pandemic, we have sought to provide the level of service required to meet the region’s needs, and this proposal moves us to the recovery phase that delivers more frequent service, in more places, more affordably, for more riders,” he said.

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