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MetroRail stations dealing out of the card game

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Riders will not be able to use a physical credit card to buy train tickets at MetroRail stations come October.

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has announced that starting on Oct. 9, ticket vending machines at the agency’s nine stations will only accept cash and the agency’s stored value transit passes.

“Capital Metro is implementing this change because the agency would have to spend nearly $5 million over the next five years to upgrade the machines to stay current with national credit security regulations that govern credit and debit card transactions,” the agency said in a press release issued Friday.

Riders will still be able to use their card information to purchase tickets through the agency’s smartphone app and online store as well as at physical retail outlets, including area grocery stores.

In an email on Monday, Capital Metro Communications Manager Francine Pares explained that the existing ticket vending machines would require both new hardware and software upgrades. The machines are not currently designed to process payments from cards equipped with new EMV chip technology.

“The other is the software payment application and the regulations surrounding that, which are not new but requires recertification every three years,” Pares said.

Pares said the agency’s Customer Service Advisory Committee was briefed on the change at its May 11 meeting, during which members “were able to ask questions and give feedback.” Pares did not elaborate on the tone of that feedback. CSAC Chairman William Shamburg did not respond to the Austin Monitor’s attempt to contact him on Monday afternoon.

By putting a new emphasis on smartphones as a means of accessing transit, Capital Metro’s move raises questions about equity. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of American adults owned a smartphone in 2014. However, only half of adults whose income was below $30,000 a year owned a smartphone.

Furthermore, the study found that “for many smartphone owners, the ongoing cost of ownership can be a financial hardship: 23 percent have had to cancel or shut off their cell phone service for a period of time because it was too expensive to maintain.”

Pares said that Capital Metro conducted a survey in 2015 that determined that 86 percent of the agency’s customers own smartphones.

Getting those customers to use the mobile ticketing app, however, is a different challenge. The Origin and Destination Survey found that only 22 percent of MetroRail’s weekday riders used the app. It was even less popular among MetroRapid and MetroBus riders, with 12 percent and 5 percent usage, respectively.

The rollout of the cash-only ticketing machines will happen over a three-week period in October.

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