New York's MetroCard Turns 20

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It's one year away from legal drinking age, but New York's MetroCard won't last much longer.

On January 6, 1994, the MetroCard debuted at two subway stations in lower Manhattan. 

The MTA credits the MetroCard with some huge transit successes  -- like the monthly unlimited pass, and the ability to transfer between buses and subways, both of which have boosted ridership tremendously -- but it only has a few more years left in it.

"This is equipment that is reaching the end of its useful life," says MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz, "almost to the point of becoming obsolete. And it's becoming increasingly expensive to maintain."

Later this year, the MTA will issue a request for proposals. The goal is to have a new fare payment system in place by 2019. What it will look like yet the agency can't quite say, but it will have interoperability (meaning it will work on subways, buses, Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road, and maybe even other regional transit systems like the PATH) and customers will likely be able to use their cell phones to pay fares. It won't involve another MetroCard-like device, as the MTA wants to get out of the business of producing fare cards.

The unlimited MetroCard debuted in 1998, after a protracted battle with the state over the MTA's finances.   The token was phased out in 2004.

Fun fact: the original MetroCard was blue (see an image here). "We changed it to MetroCard gold when we rolled out the combination of free transfers as well as the bonus and unlimited cards," said Ortiz.