After recent test, Metro says new fare-paying technology needs further study


After finishing a 90-day pilot program to test new fare-paying technology, Metro said it hopes to soon begin planning “for full deployment” of a system that would allow riders to pay fares with bank cards and smartphones.

But it remains to be seen whether Metro’s board of directors will agree to pay the estimated $294 million cost for what would be the biggest fare-system change in the transit agency’s four-decade history.

From Feb. 23 to May 23, about 400 riders who volunteered to take part in the pilot program used a new method for paying fares: “Near-field communication,” or NFC. Instead of using fare cards purchased from Metro, the riders used credit and debit cards or mobile phones equipped with NFC computer chips.
The pilot volunteers already owned NFC-capable cards and phones. Metro outfitted 50 buses with special fare machines capable of reading the devices and installed an NFC gate in 10 rail stations. By holding a card or phone within a few inches of a gate or special farebox, a rider’s fare is added to a credit card balance or deducted from a bank account.

The test was the precursor to a planned multiyear overhaul, starting in 2017, in which all stations and buses would be equipped with NFC gates and fare machines.

In 2013, when Metro began considering the eventual adoption of NFC technology, the cost of revamping the fare-collection system was estimated at $249 million. But the anticipated price has gone up by about $45 million, according to a report presented to the transit authority’s board.

Before Metro commits to the plan, the agency said, it needs to further analyze the results of the pilot program and fix some kinks. And the agency’s staff will have to convince board members that the new system would be efficient enough to attract additional riders and boost revenue, justifying the $294 million price.

“Generally, the technology tested was found to meet expectations while future changes for smoother implementation were identified,” Metro’s staff said in the report.
“The accuracy of transactions and reliability of the devices and systems was measured against the expected performance of 99.5% or 99.9%,” the report said. “Generally, performance was determined [to be] acceptable,” although “some areas of concern” were identified and “are still being reviewed.”

After the agency finishes evaluating the results of the pilot program this month, the report said, it hopes to start “planning and design for full deployment.”

Although more than 3,000 riders volunteered to take part in the test, only about 400 wound up participating. Although NFC-capable bank cards and phones are expected to become commonplace in the years ahead, the technology is not yet widely available, Metro said in explaining the relatively low participation in the 90-day test.
“Contactless credit cards and NFC-equipped mobile phone are not currently in extensive use due to either the recent introduction of the technology or limited distribution by providers in the U.S.,” transit officials told the board’s customer service committee.“These circumstances … limited the readiness of customer-participants.”

[Metro’s next-generation fare-paying system]

In addition to using NFC bank cards and phones, riders also eventually could use the next generation of Metro SmarTrip cards, which would contain NFC chips.

“Metro’s existing fare collection system is aging rapidly in the context of equipment and systems, has become too costly to maintain and is severely limited in its flexibility,” staff said in the report. “A significant number of customer-participants said [Metro] is moving in the right direction with this program.”

NFC fare-paying systems are in use in the Chicago transit system and several transit systems in Asia, according to Metro.

Other results of the test also need to be further evaluated, Metro said, and the NFC payment system has to be tested in Metro parking garages “prior to the full deployment stage.” Also, the report said, “high-impact marketing and communication plans will be developed to inform and assist customers in their transition to the new system.”
The technology company Accenture has a $184 million contract with Metro to build and install NFC gates and fareboxes for the entire transit system if Metro decides to go forward with the plan. Separate from the Accenture contract, Metro would spend $109.7 million on the plan, for a total of $294 million, according to the report.

The transit agency initially had expected to spend $65 million in addition to the Accenture contract, for an overall cost of $249 million.

Metro’s “cost of $109.7 million consist of internal labor … consulting and other third-party resources, equipment and materials, infrastructure readiness for the [station] mezzanines . . . and some power system upgrades,” the report said.

Although the 90-day data-gathering test period has ended, the NFC fare machines remain on the 50 buses and in the 10 stations — Shady Grove, Eisenhower Avenue, Bethesda, Pentagon City, Pentagon, Ballston-MU, Gallery Place, Farragut West, Navy Yard and Suitland.

The 400 participants, who registered their NFC-capable cards and phones with Metro, can continue using the new gates and machines, the transit agency said. Except for one new fare gate in each of the 10 stations, all the gates are the traditional kind. On the 50 buses, cash and SmarTrip cards also can be used.

Meanwhile, Metro is going ahead with a shorter-term plan to eliminate paper fare cards.

Fare machines in stations are being retrofitted to dispense only SmarTrip cards. Paper cards will begin disappearing from the machines in October and will be gone by January, the agency said. Starting in March 2016, paper fare cards will no longer be accepted.