Example options of the kinds of new fare machines that Metro is looking into. Image from Metro.

Metro will soon allow riders to pay for their rail and bus trips by phone, the agency announced on Tuesday, April 10. As part of an effort to become “mobile ready,” Metro is planning to roll out a mobile app later this year and wants to install new fare gates throughout the system by 2020.

Agency documents released on Tuesday show how Metro plans to modernize its fare payment system in three phases between now and 2021. Metro wants to replace all fare gates, set up the new app and mobile payments, and perform a bunch of software updates to the systems that run the SmarTrip system throughout Metro by the end of the third phase. Their goal for the program is to make it quicker and more convenient to use the system by providing a “better, easier experience.”

The new plan has two main parts to it. First, Metro wants to develop a mobile phone app to allow riders to reload their SmarTrip cards, get directions around the system, and receive real-time alerts and information.

The second part would be to integrate a "virtual" SmarTrip card with Google Pay or Apple Pay so that riders can use their phone to tap in/out at the Metro fare gates. You woud be able to load fare and auto-reload your virtual card instantly, removing the normal lag time the physical SmarTrip cards have doing those same actions.

Keeping current equipment in working order

The first phase of the plan, currently underway, focuses on maintaining the fare system in a state of good repair. Metro is replacing components on the fare gates now (which themselves are going to be replaced in just a few years) including the fare box motherboards, and upgrading their networking to modern standards (Category 6 cables) and adding new power cabling where needed. The targets, where you tap your SmarTrip card, are being replaced too. The current ones were put in around 2005, and Metro says new ones will perform better.

The existing equipment is anywhere from 15 to about 25 years old, according to Metro, so they want to replace it all. The new gates likely won’t look much different than they do now, but the fare vending machines very well might. The third phase of the project (beginning next year) includes buying all new vending machines that the agency hopes will be easy to operate and maintain. They will have large, easy-to-use screens and be smaller than the giant machines in use today.

Metro pivots to mobile

Metro attempted to allow people to pay by phone in a pilot which was canceled in 2016. The New Electronic Payments Program (NEPP) aimed to allow riders to pay by phone or with credit cards that had embedded sensors in them — though at the time, few in the US had that feature. The program was initiated in 2014, estimated to cost $184 million, and was canceled after around $25 million was spent to perform the initial rollout and pilot phases.

NEPP was an “open payment” system, meaning that any bank or credit card companies that supported the platform’s standard would be able to hook in and be used to swipe into and out of the station. Riders were supposed to be able to use a key fob, a credit card, or a SmarTrip card in other physical shapes to use the system, theoretically making it easier to tap at the gates. The vision for that technology hasn’t come to fruition in the US, so Metro dumped the pilot.

Metro wants to replace these exit fare machines and replace them with new ones which support credit/debit cards. Image by Flickr/Andrew Nash licensed under Creative Commons.

The ability to pay by phone doesn’t mean that your virtual SmarTrip card would be linked to the physical one. The way the system is set up, those two cards would still be separate with different fare “wallets.”

The new mobile payment method doesn’t mean the existing cards will go away — those will continue to be usable for the foreseeable future, said Metro finance executive Greg Garback. Compared to how Metro would have had to implement NEPP, Garback said the new mobile app and payments should be “remarkably elegant in its simplicity” given how it integrates into the current fare system that the agency operates.

By utilizing the existing Cubic NextFare 5 system already installed throughout the system as well as on other regional partner buses like RideOn and Fairfax Connector, Metro is able to let people continue to use their cards while working on extending the functionality. The downside of this approach is that Metro continues to be locked in with Cubic as the sole fare collection system vendor.

Metro hopes extending the existing system is cheaper

The estimated cost for the original NEPP rollout was a $184 million dollar contract to Accenture, the global professional services company who would have acted as Metro’s new payment system integrator. The contract, awarded in January of 2014, came not too long before the installation of Paul Wiedefeld as GM of Metro in November 2015 and the start of SafeTrack, the intensive year-long capital program to fix some of the worst spots with most defects in the system.

The derailments outside Smithsonian in August 2015 and in July 2016 outside East Falls Church proved to be one of Metro’s recent turning points. Not only did they help trigger SafeTrack (Wiedefeld in fact says he would’ve started SafeTrack as soon as he was hired “if I knew then what I know now”), but it helped to shift the agency’s priorities away from buying new systems and rather to fixing what they had now.

The priority shift likely caused Metro to rethink where it was spending its money and where that was needed more (not to mention that Metro was low on cash and asked to borrow $220 million the same month that NEPP was canceled).

The Post reports Metro will be able to do this new fare system enhancement on the cheap — around $10 million for everything described above — which is significantly less than what the cost of NEPP would have been.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

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Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.