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The MTA’s Next Big Boondoggle?

A $574 million contract was awarded to the company that botched Chicago’s digital fare rollout.

Federico di Pasqua Nov 17

Issue 230

There is one thing that New York City’s crumbling, hazardous, $43-billion indebted transit system needs to do to fix itself: replace the MetroCard with an app. That’s according to Joseph Lhota, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and his allies on the agency’s governing board.

This $574 million plan, announced by the MTA board on Oct. 25, will implement a fare system that utilizes contactless bank cards and mobile payments to replace the MetroCard. Transactions will be conducted through apps like Apple Pay, as well as “contactless cards,” credit or debit cards embedded with chips that rely on wireless near field communication technology.

“The move to a truly 21st-century method of payment represents a critical step in our overall efforts at modernizing the subway system and improving service for all our customers,” Lhota, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June, said.

Tapping a credit card or smartphone at a turnstile instead of a MetroCard could amount to a significant timesaver for New York commuters. In addition, the new technology will allow all-door boarding on buses, reducing travel time. These undeniable improvements, however, come at a time of unprecedented emergency at the agency.

Just as the MTA board began extolling the introduction of the costly fare system, New York City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal released a call for an independent commission to study the MTA’s runaway costs.

“By every available metric, the MTA has the highest capital costs in the world, spending several times more than other global cities for similar projects,” the chair of the City Council’s Contracts Committee wrote on Oct. 24 in a public letter to Lhota signed by 27 of her colleagues. In a related press release, Rosenthal noted that while Paris was “able to build a new line for $370 million per mile, Phase I of the Second Avenue subway cost $2.7 billion per mile.”

The contactless fare scheme might seem less absurd if it increased the transit system’s efficiency. This may not be the case.

The MTA has commissioned Cubic Transportation Inc., which designed the MetroCard, to install the new fare system.

The company has a singular record of failures in the United States.

Chicagoan blogger Olivia Cole described Cubic’s Ventra payment system as “proof that CTA hates us” after the Chicago Transit Authority introduced it to the Windy City in 2013.

“From bank cards being charged in addition to the Ventra card, to inexplicably nonfunctional cards, to a completely and utterly mystifying account interface online, to fundamentally clueless customer care employees, to hour-long hotline waits and, oh, let’s not forget the fact that you are instructed to pay cash when your already-paid-for Ventra card doesn’t work on their worthless scanner… Ventra has been (and continues to be) a nightmare,” Cole wrote.

When, last November, Cubic’s contactless system in San Francisco fell under attack from a virus, hackers threatened to leak passengers’ personal data while demanding a ransom of $73,000 in bitcoin. The incident exemplified how a fully digitalized fare system that tracks rider locations and requires intimate financial information provides room for Orwellian scenarios. 

MTA spokesman Joe Weinstein told the New York Times in October that the agency would implement “the most stringent security standards and protocols” to safeguard riders’ data. Nonetheless, the prospect of more than 8 million daily commuters being hacked looms over the Cubic deal.

If Lhota caves to political pressure and establishes an independent commission, it could prevent future money squandering projects like the contactless fare system, not to mention the 7 line extension and Second Avenue subway. Maybe then MTA would start providing an efficient service to the people of New York.

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Photo credit: Phil Hollenback.