Photo by David Notivol on Flickr.

After four decades of use, the days are numbered for Metro’s paper farecards. WMATA will begin to phase them out in late 2015. By 2016, the only way to pay for a Metrorail ride will be with SmarTrip.

The announcement that Metro will go paperless is no surprise. The agency stopped using paper bus transfers in 2009. Metro recently lowered the cost of SmarTrips cards to $2 and added a $1 surcharge on all trips paid using paper farecards, making SmarTrip less expensive for most riders.

Even more recently, Metro has allowed passes to be used on SmarTrip, and added SmarTrip dispensers in every rail station. With those pieces now in place and more changes coming, it’s time for the paper farecards to go.

Why eliminate paper?

Metro is eager to phase out paper farecards because they create a lot of wear and tear on the system. The faregates use 1960s technology to process the paper cards. They have rubber bands and pulleys that are maintenance-intensive, and thus expensive to keep in operation.

Once paper farecards are fully phased out in early 2016, Metro won’t have to conduct that time-consuming and expensive maintenance. The faregates won’t be replaced immediately, but the farecard systems will be deactivated.

What will change?

Despite recent incentives pushing riders to use SmarTrip, Metro’s machines still dispense two million farecards each month. Perhaps one explanation for riders’ stubborn continued reliance on farecards is that they’re easier to buy.

For a tourist first entering the system, buying a SmarTrip card means spending exactly $10 for a card at one machine (for $8 in value). If they only want to go one or two stops, there’s no way to spend less. If they want to buy a day pass or add additional value, they have to use a different machine.

That won’t be a problem after December 2015. Starting next October, Metro will replace the guts of the blue fare machines in stations. Right now they only dispense farecards. But starting in December 2015 they’ll also dispense SmarTrip cards.

WMATA won’t upgrade the older brown fare machines. The brown machines won’t dispense farecards anymore, but passengers will still be able to use them to reload SmarTrip cards. Metro will keep the SmarTrip dispensers that are currently in stations, too.

By 2020, Metro will also have replaced all of its faregates through a separate effort. Along with that will come a second-generation SmarTrip. At that point, we’ll be using an entirely new fare payment system.

But the fare machines won’t require another retrofit, as they’ll be able to dispense the new cards as well.

We've just launched our brand new website and are working out some kinks. Find something that looks like a bug? Please help out by sending us an email with the details!

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.