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The NYC subway may have limited mobile ticketing as soon as next year

But just for Metro North and LIRR passengers

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Amelia Holowaty Krales

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it hoped to have its new mobile, high-tech fare payment system for the New York City subway installed by 2020. But e-ticketing may be coming to the nation’s largest rapid transit system sooner than we thought. That’s because two companies, Mastercard and Boston-based Masabi, are currently in talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to expand their recently launched e-ticketing app for the agency’s commuter rail lines to New York City’s subway system as soon as next year.

The plan is to install thousands of e-readers in hundreds of subway stations to allow Metro North and Long Island Rail Road passengers who bought their tickets online using the MTA’s eTix app to seamlessly transfer onto the subway system. To be sure, this is not the major overhaul that the MTA put out for bidding earlier this year. However it would represent a significant step toward the agency’s ultimate goal to replace the iconic MetroCard with a more high-tech fare payment system.

In an interview Tuesday, Brian Zanghi, CEO of Masabi, told me his company is negotiating with the MTA to amend their current contract to allow eTix users to purchase joint tickets for commuter rail and the subway. A spokesperson for the MTA declined comment, but when the agency announced the app in July, it said it planned to expand the scope to the subway by “next year.” According to Zanghi, the demand is clearly there. “Everybody asks, ‘We have this for the commuter rail, why can’t we have it for the subway?’” Zanghi said.

“We have this for the commuter rail, why can’t we have it for the subway?”

Masabi is working with a number of other companies to develop a prototype casing with a multi-format reader to be mounted on the turnstiles at New York City subway stations, Zanghi said. “So anyone coming in from commuter rail can use their joint ticket they purchased to scan in and easily jump on the subway.”

There’s no overstating the significance here. If the MTA agrees to this project, it would be the first time New York City straphangers could use their smartphones to pay for a subway ride. Currently, the Big Apple lags behind other metro systems, including the London Underground and LA’s Metrolink, in this respect.

There’s no overstating the significance here

Granted, it will only be available at first to those passengers who are transferring from Metro North and the LIRR. But it would represent a huge leap toward the type of “integrated, reliable and convenient fare payment and collection system” the MTA said it was looking for in its request for proposals last April.

But introducing e-ticketing for the commuter rail lines will be a breeze compared to the subway. That’s because Metro North and LIRR passengers only need to flash their phones displaying the purchased e-ticket to the rail lines’ conductors to confirm their fares. The subway system has thousands of turnstiles that will need to be retrofitted with new scanners to read fares on a variety of platforms, including smartphones, bank cards, or smart cards. They’ll also still need to take swipes from the old-fashioned MetroCards while that fare payment system is slowly phased out.

Several companies are competing to win the MTA’s next-generation fare payment contract, including Cubic, Xerox, and Accenture. Zanghi said the likelihood is that a consortium of companies will be selected to handle the project, which is projected to cost $419 million. He hopes that by allowing commuter rail passengers to use their phones to transfer to the subway, his company will earn a spot in the MTA’s big-ticket project. “Our aspiration is to leverage that success to be the mobile platform for all of New York and the MTA,” he said.

The MTA has toyed with the idea for years — it signed a deal with Mastercard in 2006 to test a new RFID card payment scheme, and conducted a second pilot with Mastercard in 2010. Hany Fam, president of Mastercard Enterprise Partnerships, said he envisions a future where riders can use not only their phones, but also smart watches, smart rings, or even retina-scans or facial-recognition software to pay for trips on the subway. “It will be multi-modal tokens,” Fam said. “Whatever suits your lifestyle.”