Northern Va. looks into expanding mobile fare payments

WASHINGTON — Taking a commuter bus in Northern Virginia could become as simple as flashing your cellphone.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission is moving forward with developing mobile ticketing options similar to the Virginia Railway Express mobile payment app, which could lead to a single app to pay for everything from PRTC and Loudoun County commuter buses to local bus service in Arlington.

The Maryland Transit Administration has already launched its CharmPass app, which allows riders who create accounts to purchase tickets or passes for Baltimore transit services, the MARC Train and MTA Commuter Bus. As part of the change, Maryland moved away from the CharmCard, which had been interchangeable with SmarTrip.

Mobile ticketing companies demonstrated their products for the various bus agencies a few weeks ago in Alexandria. The commission is now looking into state funding opportunities for a demonstration project that would be in addition to the current SmarTrip fare system.

“A mobile ticketing demonstration would allow transit providers to establish proof of concept, while identifying solutions for a regional fare collection mobile ticketing system,” commission documents said.

Though Metro had promised a SmarTrip app that users could download by the end of 2018, Metro’s budget documents now indicate the mobile fare payments are still at least six months away from launch.

Metro’s app is expected to require what is effectively a virtual SmarTrip account, and the phone would still be tapped similar to how the physical card is.

Mobile payments on VRE, MTA Maryland and some bus systems across the country often work differently, with riders tapping the screen on their phone to activate a ticket that they then show the bus driver or conductor.

Northern Virginia has also pressed forward on its own in part out of frustration with lengthy Metro delays tied to maintenance and upgrades for the fare payment boxes on buses.

The commission is coordinating with Metro on plans to test and buy improved hardware and software for buses and maintenance garages, while also looking into ideas for the next generation of payment options.

As part of longer-term goals to speed up buses on at least some key lines, Northern Virginia is also looking into having riders pay at stops before boarding.

Metro is still working on additional fare payment upgrades, including plans in coming years for new higher-tech fare gates at rail stations.

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