MTA Pilots New Smart Cards

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Beginning Tuesday, the MTA will pilot a new payment system on some bus and subway lines that will turn certain types of MasterCards into MetroCards.

Instead of swiping, owners of credit and debit cards embedded with computer chips will be able to tap the cards against a specially designated farebox on buses or subway turnstiles. Holders of these chip-embedded cards have been using their cards at some shops like this for years. The only difference is that now they can use them to get to work.

This is the MTA's second trial of so-called "smart cards." The first one, which lasted from 2006 until 2009, only worked on the Lexington Avenue subway line. This time, according to cached pages of the pilot's website, the card readers have been put on buses along eight routes in Manhattan and the Bronx including: M14, M23, M79, M86, M101, M102, M103 and BxM7. Passengers can also use the cards at most entrances to the PATH and on three NJ Transit bus routes: 6, 80 and 87. (The MTA wouldn't comment until its official announcement Tuesday morning.)

According to the information on the Web pages, which has been confirmed by two sources familiar with the the project, MasterCard holders with cards containing the computer chips called "PayPass" will have a monopoly on the system for the first two months, because that company has been helping to develop the system. On August 1, those with chip-embedded Visa cards will also be able to take part. (Credit and debit cards in the form of a key chain tag and certain kinds of cell phones will also work.)

Installing the system on buses is where the so-called smart cards may make the biggest difference, according to William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. He says if everyone were tapping their cards instead of swiping the "dwell time" that buses spend at each stop would decrease dramatically.

Participation in the pilot, called Transit Trial, is open to anyone with the right kind of card. So far, the MTA hasn't specified whether any incentives will be offered to encourage people to take part. And since the cards can only be used in a handful of places, it's unclear how many people will participate.

MTA Chairman Jay Walder, who took office last October, has advocated a tap-and-go card like the one being used in the pilot. He's often credited with creating the Oyster Card, a smart card that London's transit agency adopted while Walder worked there. But research for a successor to the MetroCard predates Walder's appointment to the MTA by several years. The transit authority predicted this second phase would actually begin in January 2009.

The MTA is also exploring another option for replacing the MetroCard, the EasyPay card. A magnetic swipe card like the MetroCard, the EasyPay card can be replenished remotely using a credit card. According to the MTA, about 125,000 people currently use some form of EasyPay, most of whom qualify for reduced fares.

The MTA hasn't said what will happen if the pilot is successful. But if, or when, all subway stations and buses are equipped the potential is enormous. The Port Authority's SmartLink card now accounts for 50 percent of payments on the PATH, just two years after it was introduced.

According to the cached Web pages, Transit Trial will allow people to pay two ways: either on a pay-as-you go basis, with the cost of each full ride deducted like a debit card and discounts available for monthly or weekly passes, or by buying at least $10 worth of fares in advance.