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MTA struggles to get OMNY cards in stores

The MTA’s new fare payment system OMNY has been slowly rolling out since May 2019, and a key component for its success is getting OMNY cards into people’s hands. 

But the process of finding one is difficult right now. 

The MTA has a map online of retail locations that are supposed to carry the cards, but at least eight locations near downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene; and the Upper West Side in Manhattan only a few shops had cards available. 

The MTA admits it is having difficulty getting major drug store chains like Walgreens to prominently display the OMNY cards on gift card racks. In some cases, boxes of OMNY cards are sitting unopened in backrooms, said Sarah Meyer, MTA chief customer officer. 

“We definitely know that Walgreens has boxes in every retail location that they have in New York, we ship them directly,” Meyer told Gothamist. “So, they’re there — it’s just a determination of getting that inventory out of the backroom and onto those j-hooks. Same with 7-Eleven.”

Walgreens did not return calls for comment.

CVS will also sell and refill the cards, but Matt Blanchette, manager of retail communications at CVS Pharmacy, told Gothamist the cards won’t be put out for sale until April.

The new OMNY readers allow riders to use a chip-enabled credit card or their smartphone to pay fares. But for riders who don’t want to or can’t use those methods, an OMNY card can be purchased and loaded with cash. The tap-and-go payment system is expected to fully replace the MetroCard by 2024.

This comes as the MTA is rolling out its first benefit program exclusive to OMNY users, starting February 28th. It’s four-month-long fare-capping pilot utilizes the technology to give riders a weekly unlimited card after taking 12 trips in a single Monday-Sunday week.

Riders who don’t use OMNY will be left out of the program. Weekly unlimited MetroCards are still for sale, but users pay the full $33 cost for 12 rides upfront, unlike with the OMNY program. 

The MTA is moving towards making OMNY the universal payment system across subways, buses, commuter rails, and Access-a-Ride. Officials say it’s much faster to enter the subway when you tap with OMNY versus swiping a MetroCard (and you’ll avoid painful misswipes). It  will also remove the wait times at MetroCard vending machines or at the station attendant booths. Plus, the agency won’t have to process all the cash it takes; the MTA took in $1.5 billion in cash payments in 2019, and spent about 13% to process the money, according to the American Public Transportation Association. 

OMNY cards are $5 each before fares are added — more of an investment than MetroCards which cost $1 before fares — but they are thicker and expire after seven years. MetroCards expire after 18 months. 

Since the physical OMNY cards launched last October, there have been 4,367 OMNY cards sold across 460 different retail locations in the city, according to MTA spokesperson Eugene Resnick. Resnick added that another 54 locations have been refilling cards.

Currently, 23% of all subway and bus riders pay using the OMNY system, and less than 1% of those riders use the physical card.

The MTA wants to make sure people who need physical cards can get them, which is why the agency is eager to have stores feature them prominently.

Meyer, MTA’s chief customer officer, said one challenge is teaching retail employees how to refill cards that have already been purchased. 

“The training piece is more difficult than we envisioned,” Meyer said, adding that she’s conducted training herself. “We’re willing to do anything.”

Another burden on retail workers is the design of the cards themselves. There is a barcode on the card to purchase it, one to activate it, and another one to reload the card.

At a Walgreens on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, there was exactly one OMNY card left on the shelf. The package pried open as if someone just wanted to have a look. 

A nearby 7-Eleven had no cards and employees had never heard of OMNY before. At another 7-Eleven on Flatbush Avenue the gift card rack is located just behind a lottery ticket vending machine, across from the bottled waters, and there were nine cards for sale, dangling next to an Uber Eats, Amtrak, and Domino’s Pizza cards. 

Meyer encourages people to reach out to the MTA directly online via social media to confirm which retail locations have OMNY cards in stock. 

One place that has a reliable supply of OMNY cards is the check cashing chain Community Financial Service Centers. At the location on Willoughby Street in downtown Brooklyn, clerk Priscilla Martin said she sells about four OMNY cards a week. 

“Since we got them in we’ve made multiple orders for more because people do come in to ask for them,” Martin said. 

Martin said she is an OMNY user but is growing impatient with buying single trips and wants the fare discounts that are still only available on MetroCards. 

“I need them to do something about that or I’m going back to buying a monthly card,” she said. 

The MTA is already more than a year behind its own schedule for completing the rollout of OMNY features due to the pandemic. Unexpected change orders like the fare-capping pilot, as well as a software problem that caused delays have been addressed, the MTA said.

OMNY readers are now available at every subway station and on every bus, but still lack the features of MetroCards, such as unlimited passes, half-priced fares, and the ability to be purchased in subway stations.

The MTA is currently testing vending machines that will be placed in subway stations and will sell reusable OMNY cards, as well as single-use OMNY cards. The agency hopes to install the machines starting in October, if there are no further supply chain issues. 

“Please rest assured we will not retire MetroCard until we figure this out,” Meyer said. “We are committed to cash. We will always be committed to cash. And we will make sure this system is fully operational before we retire anything.” 

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