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What’s going on with OMNY, public transit’s new fare-payment system?

August 23, 2019 Mary Frost
Al Putre, MTA’s executive director of the OMNY contactless fare program, explained how it will work at a press conference on Wednesday. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Why do New York City subway and bus riders have to soon give up their MetroCards and switch to MTA’s incoming OMNY “contactless” fare payment system?

Because MetroCards are 25 years old and run on OS2 — an operating system some programmers of today have never even seen, according to Al Putre, MTA’s executive director of the program.

“Does anyone here have a 25-year-old computer? It needs to be replaced. The technology is no longer supportable,” Putre said at a press conference on Wednesday. “The kids can’t figure it out.”

Necessary technology upgrade aside, the OMNY system will bring numerous improvements for riders, Putre said. The new method will eventually provide “end-to-end connectivity” across the MTA’s subways, buses and two commuter railroads.

The U.S. is way behind other countries when it comes to contactless payment methods, Putre said. On a recent trip abroad, sales people were mystified by his American credit card’s old magnetic strip technology. But that is changing, and local banks are now upgrading to contactless cards. (The ones with the little Wi-Fi symbol on them.)

“Within two years, everyone in this room will be making payments using your phone or contactless cards,” he predicted.

With the new system, commuters will be able to “tap” their credit, debit, and reloadable prepaid cards, along with mobile phones, smart watches and wearables like Fitbits, he said.

For riders who don’t wish to use smart devices or credit cards, stand-alone OMNY cards will eventually be available at drug stores and shops, as well as in machines installed in the subway. They will work “on the gift-card model,” he said.

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“You can buy a card with cash, credit or debit. You can load online, too. Or, like an E-ZPass, it can replenish itself,” he said. You can also link a non-contactless card to a digital wallet (like ApplePay) and use it with your smart phone or wearable.

MTA’s Al Putre demonstrates how the OMNY reader works with a cell phone. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
MTA’s Al Putre demonstrates how the OMNY reader works with a cell phone. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

The system uses state-of-the-art, point-to-point encryption, plus, Putre emphasized, “we don’t sell people’s data.” MetroCards bought with credit cards already track people’s movements, and the new system is no different, he said. A warrant is required for law enforcement to get ahold of the data, however.

The OMNY system will be safe from most power outages and other disasters. Two load-balanced active processors sequence transactions simultaneously. “So if one goes down, the other takes over,” Putre explained. Each location (one in Manhattan and one in Staten Island) has a backup power supply.

The cash-only option won’t be available right away, but will come toward the end of the rollout. Until then, MetroCards will still be available. When cash-payment OMNY cards become available, they will cost somewhere around $5-6, will be the thickness of credit cards and will last longer than MetroCards.

Pilot has begun

Many Lexington line riders (and Staten Island bus commuters) have seen the contactless readers installed on turnstiles in May as part of the pilot program. Readers can be found on the 4, 5 and 6 lines between Grand Central-42 Street and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center.

All remaining bus routes, subway stations, and Staten Island Railway locations will be equipped by late 2020. Commuter rails (MetroNorth and the LIRR) will be tied in by early 2021. Affiliates like Path, Airtrain and ferries “are all clamoring to get on board,” Putre said.

This will be the first system that works across subways, buses and the light rail, which all operate on different technologies.

During the test period, the OMNY readers work on a full-fare, pay-per-ride basis. The full range of options will be added gradually until MetroCards are terminated in July 2023.

By that point, the new system will support all the functions that MetroCards currently support and more. These include transfers (the new system will allow two transfers, as opposed to the one currently allowed), senior and disabled half-price fares, and student fares, Putre said.

Putre also said the “open-loop” payment system will allow customers to buy rides using their own devices. Toward the end of the test period, a closed-loop method will allow riders to pay with cash.

This is important in Brooklyn, where nearly 28 percent of residents lack a credit history and many don’t own smart phones. Putre assured reporters that credit cards — or bank accounts — will not be a requirement to use OMNY.

The pilot phase of the rollout, which runs through the end of 2019, will allow the MTA to ensure that all systems are fully functional and that any problems are identified before expanding to the whole system. “We’re designing and testing it in stages, so if it fails it’s not catastrophic,” Putre said.

By March 2022, configurable OMNY vending machines will be installed in the subway, and the old MetroCard vending machines “will probably be dumped in the ocean to make homes for jellyfish,” he said.

The future of travel

Asked to speculate on the future, Putre joked, “They’ll inject a chip in your neck when you’re born.” But that picture is not as bizarre as it sounds, he noted.

People will be “biometrically enabled,” he said, describing Swedes who put microchips in their wrists.

Putre, who will be retiring before 2023, when MetroCards will be terminated, is proud of the work his team has done so far in the rollout.

“This project on budget and on schedule,” he said.

“By July 2023, MetroCards will be gone.” He added, “Me, too.”

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