Google Wallet, Apple Pay on Metro? Maybe not

Metro has taken the first step toward a vision where customers can pay to ride trains or buses with a smartphone or credit card, instead of a SmarTrip. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON — A pilot program to test whether to allow customers to pay with Google Wallet, Apple Pay or other credit cards with near-field communication has not gone well, and the program itself could be in serious trouble.

Metro officials told a committee on Thursday that the entire project, from beginning to end, is already $44.5 million over budget.

The figure surprised board members, many of whom are also worried the number will only increase.

“We were actually told that this would have a positive effect overall on the budget, and it sure isn’t looking like that right now.  “I would like to understand how WMATA’s portion could go up so dramatically,” says board member Mary Hynes of Arlington.

Other board members expressed frustration at the prospect of being tied to a multi-year program that is already over budget.

“I don’t get it.  Why did we do a pilot program if we’re buying the whole ranch?” asked a frustrated Tom Bulger.

Another problem is the general lack of interest.  Metro targeted 3,000 customers for the pilot program, but it only managed to get 400.

“I’ve expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction at the pace of this pilot program,” says board member Michael Goldman.

Metro Interim General Manager Jack Requa told board members that the problem is people haven’t jumped onto Google Wallet, Apple Pay and near-field communication credit cards at the pace they had thought in 2011.

“We thought the credit cards were going to take over.  Visa, MasterCard, and all the others were going to handle the money and everybody was going to be using their own card with a chip or a smartphone.  That transition capability exists within the proposed system, but the reality is 90 percent of our people are still going to be using a card we issue to them.  So this anticipation that SmarTrip would go away and payment would be handled by outside vendors is not the current case,” Requa says.

Metro also admitted while equipment has been tested in Metrorail stations and on Metrobuses, the pilot program hit delays installing equipment at two Metro parking lots.

What this means to the future of the smart payment Metro system is unclear, although board members urged Requa to allow them to give the final say on whether the program proceeds beyond the pilot.

“We’re in the middle of the evaluation.  We’ve got to make sure the pilot process gets completed and then we have decisions to make as to how we proceed,” Requa says.

Asked whether that meant he might dump the program, Requa said that was an option.

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