TX: Metro moving ahead on new fare system, which allows for Apple Pay and credit card options

June 13, 2024
The planned replacement of Metropolitan Transit Authority's fare payment system is on track for next year, which will allow riders to pay for their rides in a variety of ways.

Jun. 10—Getting people to pay $1.25 to ride Metro buses and trains using almost any payment type they want has been a six year process. But those efforts will mean a lot more options for riders in 2025.

The planned replacement of Metropolitan Transit Authority's fare payment system is on track for next year, said Debbie Sechler, executive vice president for administration at Metro. Though delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain shortages, the new systems have been installed on buses and new machines are coming soon to train platforms — along with all of the other things required before switching from Q cards, the current Metro-provided fare cards, to the new payment options.

For Metro, however, it means spending a lot of money for what is really a fraction of its funding. In the first six months of the current fiscal year, beginning in October 2023, Metro collected $19.7 million in fares, while spending more than $441 million operating the transit system and HOV lanes. The vast majority of Metro's budget comes from its three-quarters of the 1% sales tax levied in the Houston area served by the agency.

Still, how riders hop on a bus or train is one of the ways that Metro deals with every current and potential customer, Sechler said, something officials are looking to make easier with the new fare validators.

On buses, the new devices are bagged now, as people still tap on the old red-dot readers. When that changes, here are some of the things that riders might need to know, including that they will be able to tap a lot more things on the new device.

Any way to pay

One of the limitations of the current system is the only thing someone can tap on the validator is a Q card.

For frequent riders, Q cards can be convenient because they can be reloaded automatically with a credit card, or cash can be added at Metro Ride Store locations, train platforms and even on buses.

The card essentially becomes an account with Metro, and if lost, it can be replaced without losing the money on the card.

They are just not ideal for every rider, including occasional riders, tourists and people who simply do not want another card to keep track of.

The new validators expand payment options well beyond Q cards.

Want to pay with a credit card? If it has an EMV chip, you can just tap it on the validator on a bus, the same as you would making a payment in many coffee shops and retail stores.

With Apple Pay or Google Pay, riders can simply tap their phones when boarding.

Metro's smartphone app, meanwhile, will also move to a system where riders tap to use a stored fare, as opposed to the current system that requires showing proof of payment to the bus operator with an animated image on the screen.

The system change, however, will mean riders need to change out their current Q cards for new fare cards once the new devices are fully in place.

Cash will continue

Buses will also continue to take cash, as will the vending machines on train platforms. Metro, along with a number of transit agencies, wants to do everything it can to reduce cash use because taking bills and coins can be expensive and cumbersome. The machines need to be emptied, and all of the cash must be safely moved around the area. Metro also has to maintain and repair collection boxes on buses.

To shift as many people as possible to credit or fare cards, Metro will more than quadruple the number of places a card can be obtained. Pretty much anywhere that sells prepaid phone cards or gift cards will be able to provide fare cards.

Buffer period

Sechler said once the new validators are operational, the current ones will not immediately get turned off. There will likely be a few weeks — about a month, maybe more — when both will still be on buses and taking people's taps.

That's a function of the immense shift a change in fare systems is for Metro, even if it is a simple tap for riders. Should the new system stumble, with 1,200 buses running along Houston area streets, Metro needs a contingency plan to make sure the hardware and software behind payments works without interruption, Sechler said.

That means a certain amount of time to prove the new system is as flawless as it is practical before the outgoing system is removed from buses and train platforms.

Quitting Q cards

That overlap is going to be crucial for what might be the biggest wrinkle in the switch to a new system, phasing out the Q card for the new fare card. Anyone with a Q card is going to need to connect a new card to their account by the time the old validators are shut off. As people replace cards, any balances will be transferred, Sechler said.

She added the aim is making that as easy as possible for people. Metro plans to create mobile rider stores that will move to transit centers and other high-traffic transit locations where there isn't a permanent spot.

More options available

Unlike the Q card system Metro is replacing, Sechler said the new system is more reactive. In the future, if a new card or technology takes hold — say a new app replaces Apple Pay or becomes popular — then it could be added as a viable form of payment with a simple software upgrade.

"In a year or two, we can look at what is popular then and try and add options," Sechler said.

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