Most veteran subway riders swipe their MetroCards with expertise perfected only through years of practice.
But, after the card's 20th anniversary last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority envisions a city where straphangers tap and scan their way across the five boroughs.
"The MetroCard system is nearing the end of its useful life," MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, "almost to the point of really becoming obsolete."
The MTA hopes to replace the MetroCard — considered a revolutionary replacement for the subway token in 1994 — with an inclusive system allowing for multiple methods of payment. These might include bank-issued tap-and-go smartcards, scannable smartphone apps or some other future technology that would ease commutes and operational costs.
The MetroCard costs the MTA roughly $6 million annually, Ortiz said, as older equipment becomes more expensive to keep operational.
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"It's almost like trying to maintain your 8-track music collection on tapes," said Bill Henderson, executive director of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.
The MTA has been moving toward an alternative since 2006, when contactless payment methods were first researched, but plans have stalled in recent years.
Now, the authority aims to have a MetroCard replacement fully implemented by 2019, Ortiz said, when the current system becomes too costly to maintain.
The MTA plans to file a request for proposals this year, and to award a contract by 2015.
Ortiz said the MTA hopes to let riders scan their phones at the turnstile with the new system. The MetroCard's replacement might also permit riders to pay fares directly using debit or credit cards enabled with RFID or NFC, which allows for contactless transactions.Chicago's Ventra Card and London's Oyster Card use this technology.
"Transit systems are moving from storing the fare value on the physical card to having the card be an identifier that processes the payment through a computer system," explained Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, a nonprofit that works with agencies like the MTA to increase understanding of smartcard technology.
The MTA hopes the update will allow riders to transfer more easily between bus, subway and rail lines. In the future, the same device might be used to pay within other agencies, like PATH or NJ Transit.
Advocates said the updates would be a boon for riders.
"There would be less maintenance to it," Henderson said. "At the end of the day, after heavy usage, you have to swipe the MetroCard two or three times to get through."
Straphangers Campaign spokesman Gene Russianoff said the MTA's proposals are more convenient for everyday life.
"A ton of people have smartphones," he said.
The MTA would also sell a physical device of some kind for riders without access to bank-issued cards or smartphones, Ortiz said.
Here lies potentially the only cause for complaint, Russianoff said. It's likely that device would cost more than the $1 MetroCard fee.
"I don't think there's strong arguments against doing it," he said. "But this is New York — I'm not going to say no one will be grumbling."
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