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DC Metro Wants Smarter Fare Card, Including FarePhones

Saturday, March 16, 2013 - 07:00 AM

(Photo CC by Flickr user Mr T in DC)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Metro is working on a system that would ease the process of paying for bus or train fare, turning it into a tap of a smart phone or credit card at a turnstile. While such a system would no doubt simplify the transit process for many, it is still years away.

Boarding a Metro bus or train now is a bit like visiting a foreign country, at least in one respect: you have to convert your dollars into Metro currency, either by using a SmarTrip card or a paper fare card. Metro wants to bring its payment system into the 21st century, even if some long-time riders feel the SmarTrip is just fine.

"I think [SmarTrip] was one of the best ideas Metro has ever put into existence since I've been riding the bus, and I've been riding the bus most of my life," says Greg Olden in Columbia Heights.

SmarTrip may have been a great idea at one time, but it costs the transit authority millions annually to maintain. That is why Metro is now accepting bids from tech companies to develop a new system that would let you tap your credit card or mobile phone to pay your fare.

"The way transportation agencies are looking at this market now is, 'Why don't we allow people to use the existing payment options that they have in their pockets, like the credit cards and debit cards they currently carry to make other purchases, and use those to access the transit system?'" says Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of Smart Card Alliance, which advocates modern payment technologies in a variety of industries. "That way, we don't have to inconvenience consumers, nor do we have to maintain the system that converts that money into transit fare dollars."

Vanderhoof says that while a new system would require installing new fare gates and computers, eliminating the cost and services of the SmarTrip system would save WMATA millions every year.

Metro declined to comment on this story because the transit authority is in the final stages of a competitive bidding process to design a new payment system.

Metro hoped to award a contract early last year, but, as The Washington Examiner reported, the process has been delayed a year.

Once that is finally taken care of, it will likely take about three years to phase in a new payment system.

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