MTA's MetroCard fee could become new frustration for straphangers
You might want to start swiping your MetroCard a little more gently.
On top of a fare hike that went into effect Sunday, the MTA is now charging riders an extra $1 for buying a new MetroCard instead of refilling an old one, saying it will help clean up stations and save money by printing fewer cards.
But straphangers and their advocates say the so-called "green fee" may face some hurdles if it is to achieve anything beyond bringing in an estimated $20 million into the perpetually cash-strapped agency's coffers.
"The idea of getting people to reuse their cards is good, but it ends up being a burden on people," said Bill Henderson of the MTA's Permanent Citizen's Advisory Committee. "It's another increase in the cost of riding."
Will riders listen?
While it has been possible to reload extra cash onto regular MetroCards for years, unlimited weekly and monthly cards could not be refilled until last year.
But since then, less than 13% of straphangers have bothered refilling the time-based cards, instead preferring to toss them and get new ones. MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the agency expects the surcharge to change that statistic.
"Once the $1 surcharge kicks in, folks will definitely gravitate towards refilling those cards," Ortiz predicted.
It's the MTA's responsibility to get the word out to riders about the new fee, said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, who likes the $1 fee plan because it could reduce waste.
"It's something new. My guess is it will have a bumpy start," Russianoff said. "I'm sure a lot of people don't even understand that [MetroCards] are refillable."
The MetroCard's durability
Because MetroCards have an expiration date of about two years from their purchase date, riders are going to have to be more careful to avoid damaging their cards - especially those that swipe on a daily basis.
Catie Monck, a publicist from Bay Ridge, said she frequently gets an error message from the MetroCard she refills - particularly when she rides an older bus.
"The bus driver will do the 'just rub it on your leg and try again,'" said Monck, 36. "But more often than not, it just reads 'error.' "
She called the new $1 fee "ridiculous."
"The cards aren't 100% effective, obviously," she said. "You shouldn't be charged to get a new card."
Out of approximately 2.6 million cards sold each month, about 30,000 are sent back in because of damage, the MTA said, with unlimited monthly passes making up about half of all cards sent to the agency. Another 4,200 expired cards are sent in to have their value traded to another card each month.
MTA spokesman Ortiz dismissed the possibility that the added use on refilled MetroCards would increase the number of cards damaged, calling them "pretty resilient."
"Most people take care of the cards," Ortiz said. "The card is meant to last two years."
When cards expire after two years, riders can trade them for new ones without paying the fee.
In the past year, the MTA has hired added workers to handle a backlog of MetroCard claims, though Ortiz refused to say how many extra employees were added, or how many work in the unit.
"We improved the turnaround time significantly," he said, adding that issues are typically addressed within a few weeks.
And in February, the MTA announced that MetroCards could now hold time-based amounts (unlimited rides) and extra cash for when your time runs out. Station agents are also now equipped to transfer time to a new card if your MetroCard wears out.
"They're actually more durable than one would think," said Henderson, of the MTA's PCAC. "I have one that basically will last for a year. I've had it scratched up, worn through in parts, and it actually still works."
"The bad thing about the magnetic strip is that they do malfunction. If we had a smart card, we'd have better durability," Henderson added. "We're pushing the MetroCard to its limits right now."
Improving the MetroCard's reliability
Ex-MTA chief Jay Walder first touted the agency's plan to introduce a tap-and-go payment system to replace the MetroCard, but the improvements have been delayed several times.
The MTA recently said it was again pushing back its plan to get rid of the current MetroCard system, possibly until as late as 2018.
But the agency is aware that holding off much longer may not be an option.
"MTA cannot afford to simply continue to maintain the current system in a state of good repair beyond the next 7-10 years," according to an agency document.
"Equipment is reaching the end of its useful life. Risk of obsolescence over the next 10 years."
But some riders said they like the current card.
"If they keep making them durable and sturdy, there's no reason why they wouldn't stand the test of two years," said Desi K. Robinson, a radio producer and host from Corona. "With the exception of Europe, I don't think there's anything that stands up to it."
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz says the agency is not implementing the "green fee" to make money.
"The reason behind the surcharge is to cut costs and help the environment," he said. "There is really no reason for you to have to buy a new card.
How to avoid paying the $1 fee
-- Keep refilling your card, and keep it in a card protector to make sure it doesn't get damaged. If it does get damaged or expires, you won't be charged for a new one.
-- Buy your MetroCard from a bodega or other outside vendor - their cards don't include fees.
-- Sign up to get your card from your employer through a company like Transit Check.