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Future of Metro fares could be smartphones, credit cards

Metro begins a pilot program in 2015 to test fare gates with near-field communication (NFC) that would allow passengers to pay for a ride with an equipped credit card or smartphone. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON — As Metro moves away from paper fare cards to SmarTrip, the agency also looks toward the next generation of paying fares.

Metro begins a pilot program in 2015 to test fare gates with near-field communication (NFC) that would allow passengers to pay for a ride with an equipped credit card or smartphone.

One Metro staffer says if paper cards are 1970s, SmarTrip cards are 1990s and NFC technology is 2010s.

“This will make things more convenient for our passengers and reduce wait times, especially on buses where people reload their cards with cash,” says Tom Randall, Director of Payment Services at Metro.

The pilot program will take place at 10 stations: Suitland, Union Station, Pentagon City, Farragut West, Shady Grove, Eisenhower Avenue, Ballston, Gallery Place, Navy Yard and Pentagon.

It’ll also include 50 buses and two parking lanes.

Metro will recruit more than 2,000 passengers for the pilot program, operated through Acenture.

“In most cases, these will replace existing gates. Those gates will be specific for the pilot customers during the pilot phase,” says Randall, who says it means the traditional customers will have fewer gates at the test stations.

Each will have one test fare gate, which will have signs to let regular passengers know that it’s only for pilot program users. While Metro hasn’t finalized how the signage would look, the idea would be to make it similar to E-ZPass only lanes at local bridges.

Metro says these new fare gates would not be deployed for general use until at least May 2017. Full implementation could take until 2020.

“This is not something in the near term. It’s years before we’ll get to this. I want to make that clear,” says Metro General Manager Richard Sarles.

The agency says using NFC technology will allow both regular riders and out-of- town tourists to ride on Metro without converting their money into Metro money.

Google Wallet uses NFC technology, which means some people could simply tap their smartphone on the fare gate to pay. Isis is a similar app that does the same.

Credit card companies are also integrating NFC technology.

Mastercard calls it PayPass, while Visa calls it payWave.

While most customers don’t get a NFC credit card as a default, you can contact your credit card company and ask them for one.

Vendors are pushing for NFC to become more mainstream, like in Europe, after the Target data breach. Proponents argue that NFC technology is harder for criminals to replicate than a magnetic strip when credit card data is stolen.

Metro is also working with regional partners like MARC, VRE, Montgomery County RideOn, Prince George’s County TheBus, PRTC, Alexandria DASH, Arlington ART, Fairfax County Connector and DC Circulator and Streetcar and the Purple Line so that passengers could pay for all services with one NFC device.

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