Why Is the MTA OK With High-Speed Car Tolls But Not High-Speed Bus Fares?

Without a fare system that facilitates proof of payment, bus riders will be stuck with the same slow boarding process for another generation. Photo: Ben Fried

MTA officials revealed today that the MetroCard will linger until 2022, though the agency still intends to phase in a new fare payment system starting in 2018. What remains unknown is whether the new system will enable electronic proof of payment, a fare collection method that promises to speed up NYC’s snail-paced buses.

The matter came up briefly during an MTA board meeting, after New York City Transit Vice President for Procurement and Material Steve Plochochi requested approval for an extension of the agency’s contract with Cubic, the company that built the MetroCard system.

Plochochi affirmed that a new fare payment system is still on track to begin deployment in 2018, but said the agency does not want to take a “cold turkey” approach and replace the MetroCard in one fell swoop.

Other than that, Plochochi didn’t divulge anything about the agency’s thinking with regards to the MetroCard replacement. “I really can’t go into details of the proposals,” he said.

Transit advocates have pressed the MTA to commit to a fare system that will facilitate electronic proof of payment on buses. By allowing riders to quickly tap a farecard or mobile device at any door, the technology could significantly shorten the boarding process and speed up buses systemwide.

Advocates urged the MTA to require electronic proof of payment capability from bidders responding to its RFP for the next-gen fare system [PDF]. Without the technology, bus riders would be doomed “to a whole new generation of boarding slowly, one-by-one, at the front of the bus,” said the Riders Alliance.

The MTA refused, citing concerns about “the very real threat of fare evasion,” even though fare evasion has not proven to be a problem with proof of payment systems in San Francisco or on Select Bus Service routes in New York. The agency hasn’t budged since then. New York City Transit Executive Vice President Craig Cipriano refused to commit to all-door boarding at this month’s City Council hearing on bus service.

Interestingly, the MTA dragged its feet for years on an analogous technological advance for motorists — cashless tolls. Advocates pressed the MTA to adopt cashless tolling for more than a decade, the agency’s pilot programs stagnated for ages, and other tolling authorities eventually left the MTA in their dust. Only when Governor Cuomo intervened this year did the agency finally commit to fully cashless tolls at all its bridges and tunnels.

At one point during today’s meetings, NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg wondered aloud why board members were being rushed to approve cashless tolls without a discussion of potential pitfalls — including “fare evasion.”

For MTA officials, the answer is easy: Cashless tolls are on the fast track now because the motorists who stew in toll plaza traffic are a priority for the Cuomo administration. It’s a shame bus riders don’t get the same treatment.

  • John C.

    Because Cuomo is a suburban car lovin’ kinda guy….. Mass transit is for the masses, not his people.

  • JudenChino

    It’s incredibly cruel how we privilege car driving as a matter of policy over bus riders. From this morning, case in point.

  • kevd

    because MTA board members and all members of the political class who appoint MTA board members drive cars and zero take the bus.
    Some might take the subway from time to time.
    But buses? those are for the poors because they are so slow….

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right. The same issue. Toll evasion is also an issue.

  • Shemp

    The Governor likely experiences the fact that the Thruway Authority has had high-speed tolls for years, but has no direct experience to allow him to counter the MTA arguments vs all-door bus boarding, and he’s never had knowledgeable transp advisors.

  • Kevin Love

    Cuomo’s motto: “Good enough for the likes of you.”

  • com63

    I think just looking at the demographic of the people in the picture at the top of the article explains perfectly well why there is no urgency on this issue.

  • KeNYC2030

    You can bet that whatever technology the MTA finally settles on, it will be yesterday’s technology by the time it hits the turnstiles and collection boxes.

  • bolwerk

    Electronic proof of payment is probably much less important than proper procedures for paper proof of payment, and note they haven’t even gotten that right yet. Electronic proof of payment is mostly for bulk purchasers – which, granted, should be all daily users as the carrot for discouraging fare evasion.

  • ad astra

    Remember those ads the MTA ran in subways half a decade ago bragging about the cashless tolls on the HHB as if it were some major advance for transit riders (who can’t even ride over that bridge on a bus)? Expect a lot more of the same rubbing it in the face of their customers when/if they finally go cashless at the other bridges.

  • AMH

    Clearly USB ports and Wi-Fi are everything we need. Why should ungrateful riders complain about slow service?

    Also a minor correction: Stephen Plochochi is Vice President for Procurement and Materiel.

  • Zach

    Why just one metro card reader per bus? I was in Barcelona over the summer. Every bus has two card readers, past the driver to the left and right, to make it clear it isn’t the bus driver’s job to worry about fares and to double the speed of card reading.