The long-promised end of the MetroCard is still nowhere in sight

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Old-fashioned turnstiles in Brooklyn. (Adam Fagen via Flickr)
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MetroCards have been just short of retirement age for a while now.

In 2006, the Daily News, reporting on an M.T.A. pilot project that let New Yorkers use credit cards and fobs to pay fares, said, "It could be the beginning of the end of the line for the MetroCard."

In 2010, then-M.T.A. chairman Jay Walder said the M.T.A. planned to have a new smart-card payment system in place to succeed the MetroCard in most subways and buses by the following year.

Then, he moved the completion date to 2015.

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Yesterday, during a Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting, the M.T.A. gave a presentation about its pursuit of smart-card technology, and announced that 2015 was no longer viable.

The new goal: sometime in the next three to five years, which means between 2016 and 2018.

The reason for the new delay?

The M.T.A. now wants New Yorkers to be able to pay for subway fares not only with smart cards (tap-and-go cards that draw down debit, credit or other preexisting accounts), but also with smartphones.

As Bill Henderson, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the M.T.A., pointed out, the M.T.A. has suffered from developments beyond their control: namely, that tap-and-go credit cards are not nearly as prevalent as the M.T.A. expected them to be by now.

In the absence of such cards, the M.T.A. would have to rely on a proprietary card, like London's Oyster card, which means it would still be responsible for a lot of expensive overhead.

One of the promises of what's known as open-fare technology, like tap-and-go credit cards, as I reported in September, is that it would get rid of that overhead.

It would also enable buses to move more quickly by speeding up the boarding process. 

"Most of the stuff is still the magnetic-stripe cards," said Henderson. "Most transactions happen that way."

But time may push the M.T.A.'s hand.

The MetroCard payment system's is getting up there in years—"We...cannot continue to maintain the current system in a State of Good Repair beyond 2019," reads the presentation, available here.

(Read more about the promise of open-fare and smart-card technology, and how other cities are passing New York by, here.)

In the meantime, the M.T.A. is making technological advances on other fronts, announcing yesterday a request for proposals for an app that will let Long Island and Metro-North railroad passengers buy and then display their tickets using their smartphones and tablets.