After more than a decade of development, the Maryland Transit Administration plans to launch its often-delayed electronic fare payment system Tuesday — giving riders the option of using a plastic card to ride the Metro, light rail and local buses.
MTA spokesman Terry Owens called the introduction of what will be known as the CharmCard a "huge step forward" for the agency. He said it will be "one of the largest integrated transit fare payment systems in the nation."
The system is similar to the electronic SmartTrip card that has been in use for more than 10 years on Washington's Metro subway and Metrobus systems, with which it will be interchangeable. The CharmCard will also work on certain regional bus systems in the Washington suburbs in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
The cards will cost $2.50 up front and can then be used to store monetary value and pay fares as needed by tapping them on the fareboxes. Passengers can add value to their cards at ticket vending machines set up at stations around the region, as well as at bus fareboxes. The ticket vending machines will accept both cash and credit cards.
The cards, which include an embedded microchip, are also expected to reflect the cost of reduced-fare passes for frequent users.
"We are going to have a safe, more secure system," Owens said. "Passengers won't have to worry about paper tickets anymore."
The MTA plans to unveil the new card at a news conference Tuesday at the Charles Center Metro Station.
Its debut hasn't come easily. Owens said the process of developing such a system started in 1999. Since then, it has met with many setbacks and delays as officials have struggled with the challenges of making it usable across the MTA's different modes of transportation.
In 2001, the state came close enough to award a contract to a private vendor to supply a smart card system, but the move toward electronic payment was put on the back burner in 2003. The effort was revived after Paul J. Wiedefeld became MTA administrator in 2007, though he left to head Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport before the card could come to fruition.
Over the past year, the cards have been undergoing beta testing in the hands of volunteer passengers. MTA officials said the response has been highly positive.
Philip Welshans, a Mount Vernon resident who has been one of those beta testers since May, said the system has worked without a glitch.
"It's perfectly convenient. It's a lot faster," he said, adding that it has allowed him to catch Metro trains he otherwise might have missed. "All I need to do is touch the card to the reader and it lets me go through the turnstile," he said.
Welshans said he particularly likes the fact he can use the card in either Baltimore or Washington.
"It makes sense that you should be able to integrate the two systems," he said. "It's a lot more convenient than having to remember my SmartTrip card when I go down there."
Steven Taubenkibel, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said the system introduced its SmartTrip system in 1999.
"It's well-accepted in our system," he said. "The numbers of people who use it have grown over the years."
Such cards are increasingly becoming a standard feature on large metropolitan transit systems around the world. In the United States, according to the Smart Card Alliance trade group, transit agencies that either use or are planning to introduce the systems include those in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Houston, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and metropolitan New York. Some transit agencies, including Washington's, use smart cards for parking as well as transit fares.
Owens said the cards will be available at the MTA Transit Store, 6 St. Paul St., and at selected CVS Pharmacy and Giant Food stores in the metropolitan area. MTA representatives will be out at bus stops this month and next to sell the cards, and riders will also be able to buy them online at mtacharmcard.com.
The cards cannot be used on the MARC commuter train system or MTA commuter buses.
Passengers will be able to carry up to $200 in fare value on a card. They are not designed to be shared, and will be programmed to block their usage for two rides within 10 minutes. A rider will able to store multiple-use passes from both the Baltimore and Washington systems on the same card, though the passes will have to be bought separately.