Metro’s sales pitch to seniors needs an upgrade

[Join me at noon Monday when Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax Department of Transportation, will take your questions about preparations for the Silver Line service, which will add five new stations in the county. You can submit questions and comments in advance.]

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
My husband and I are trying to prepare for the opening of the Silver Line. He is eligible for a reduced-rate senior SmarTrip card. I understand it needs to be done in person so the age can be verified.

Senior SmarTrip
Metro image shows design of Senior SmarTrip card.

The problem is that it seems extremely difficult to obtain. In addition, I have received three different answers from as many calls to a human at the Metro help line.

I started looking online, but it only discusses sites for purchase of the senior passes in the District or Montgomery County. When I entered my Zip code, it told me there were no sites for purchase nearby.

On one Metro phone call, I was told that unless the senior pass was used frequently, it did not pay to obtain one. Another call told me to go to the Ballston Metro station and visit the street-level store.

When I asked if I would be able to get off the Silver Line train at Ballston, I was told that could not be done. The final call told me to stay on the line and after a brief survey, I would be able to leave a recorded message that would be answered. There was no such opportunity.

Since we have been paying increased taxes and tolls to fund this line, I would think Metro might make more of an effort to accommodate Virginia riders. Don’t they realize that for seniors, getting themselves downtown to buy a pass is more than difficult? Do you have any better information on how to purchase the senior SmarTrip pass?

— D. Carlivati, Reston

The Metro marketing campaign surrounding the opening of the Silver Line is about attracting folks like this to use the five new stations in Fairfax. But how much more difficult could Metro make it for them?

This potential customer had done her homework. She knew that to get the senior version of a SmarTrip that allows for discounts on rides, a person has to buy the distinctive yellow card in person and bring proof that he or she is at least 65.

She looked at Metro’s Web site, but a person who goes to the main page for the senior SmarTrip reads this: “To purchase the card, seniors need to show a valid government issued photo ID with proof of age at Metro sales offices, commuter stores, and some public libraries located in Montgomery County.”

If you’re looking because you live in Fairfax County and you’re excited to hear that the Silver Line will be conveniently located nearby, that sales pitch isn’t helping.

You can click your way from that page into finding the locations of Connector Stores in Fairfax County that sell the senior cards. But when I looked, I already had guidance from Metro spokesman Dan Stessel on what stores I was searching for.

Left to my own devices and to a Web page I found confusing, I probably would have settled on taking a trip to the sales office at Metro Center to buy the $2 senior card.

But Carlivati’s effort didn’t end with checking a Web page. She tried it the old-fashioned way by calling customer service.

Now, granted, a phone conversation holds plenty of potential for confusion. Think of the last time you contacted Verizon.

But given the intensity of Metro’s marketing campaign for the Silver Line, there is no way a Metro representative should have allowed her to get off the telephone without understanding that, yes, you will be able to ride the Silver Line to Ballston.

By the end of her three phone calls, Carlivati knew less about how to ride Metro than when she started.

Think about the potential the senior market offers Metro. I’ve talked to many a retiree out on the western fringe of the D.C. region who would love to drive a short distance, board a train and spend the day at a Smithsonian museum, rather than face the daunting task of driving all the way into the District.

Being a transit customer shouldn’t be such hard work.

All right, Carlivati’s best bet is to send her husband off to one of these two nearby Connector Store locations: Reston Town Center Transit Station, 12051 Bluemont Way, opening 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays; or the Herndon-Monroe Park & Ride, 12530 Sunrise Valley Dr., in Herndon, open Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.

About that reference to the Ballston station that confused her: Jennifer Wagar, the transit marketing manager at Arlington County Commuter Services, explained to me that people can purchase the senior SmarTrip card from Arlington’s four Commuter Stores and from the Mobile Commuter Store that travels across the county.

One of those stores is at the Ballston-MU Metro Plaza, 4230 Fairfax Dr., above the rail station. It’s open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

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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