SmarTrip card changes start Tuesday

September 30, 2013

Metro has a new automatic reload system for SmarTrip cards that can keep you away from the fare machines. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

While you’re pondering the effects of the impending federal shutdown on commuting in the D.C. region, remember that Metro is launching several changes in the fare system on Tuesday.

The cost of a new Metro SmarTrip card will drop from $5 to $2. I’d pitch this as a break for tourists, if I thought they’d have someplace to go. The Smithsonian museums and the zoo would be closed during a shutdown.

But the shutdown will end someday, won’t it? At that point, tell your out of town visitors they should spend the $2 on the plastic cards. Using the paper card costs $1 extra per trip.

With the drop in the card’s price, the purchase rules become more complicated. People who buy the SmarTrip at a Metrorail station vending machine or a CVS store will still pay $10, but the card will come loaded with $8 in value rather than $5.

Riders will be able to purchase a card for $2 with no pre-loaded value at any Metro Sales Office or commuter store and some Giant and Safeway stores.

A related change also effective Tuesday: Riders won’t be able to exit the fare gates with a negative balance of more than $1.50.

A negative balance means the trip you just took cost more than the value you had on the card.

If the negative value exceeds $1.50 — let’s say, if it’s $2 — you will need to go over to an Exitfare machine in the station to add more value to the card. Exitfare machines accept $1, $5 and $10 bills, but not debit or credit cards. (If you notice someone ahead of you on the fare gate line repeatedly tapping a card to no effect, it may be a result of the new rule on the negative balance.)

SmarTrip has a feature called Auto Reload, which would spare you that Exitfare hassle by automatically adding value to the card when it drops below $10.

Since I hate waiting in line for the fare machines, some of which aren’t in the mood for SmarTrip transactions when I get there, the auto reload seemed like a good bet, so I signed up for it. If you don’t already have a SmarTrip account online, you can start to check out auto reload at www.wmata.com/autoreload.

Riders have sometimes expressed concerns about how these online transactions are processed. This is what’s supposed to happen:

Your credit card will be charged when you set up auto reload and make your first purchase. (For example, I set it up to add $20 whenever the stored value on my card drops below $10. As with other online purchases, you proceed to the shopping cart to complete this transaction.) Any time thereafter that your credit card is charged for the automatic reload, you should see an e-mail confirming this has happened.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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