Smar(ter) Trip: How MARC Dethroned Our Lovable Wallet Buddy



Sorry, SmarTrip. But you’re not nearly as intelligent as my other ticket to ride: the MARC monthly. When I bought my first one for $175, it seemed like a fair price for a daily trip from Baltimore to D.C. and back. So I didn’t entirely believe it when a fellow commuter told me it was also good for any bus, light rail or subway trips in Charm City.

But it turns out, that guy was right — the monthly pass does it all. Ever since, I’ve made sure to keep it safe in an orange protective sleeve and have it with me wherever I go. And that’s a lot more places now that I don’t have to worry about spending anything extra to get there. Yep, I’m living the dream in Baltimore.

As it turns out, it’s Michael Perkins’ dream too. The 31-year-old Arlington resident is behind a push to get Metro to create a similar monthly pass. For more than two years, he’s been crunching the numbers to show that the proposal would benefit both riders and WMATA, and presenting his findings to the powers that be.

But since that hasn’t yielded the results Perkins was looking for, he’s launched a public campaign through the site Metrosmartpasses.org (along with a Twitter account @SmartPasses and a Facebook page).

“I’d gotten to the point that there were no more board members to talk to,” says Perkins, who hopes taking the idea to the people will help him flesh out the details and possibly find any holes in his proposal.

The standard way to calculate the fair price for a monthly pass is to make it worth 40 rides. That way you’re paying for your commute, which is the big moneymaker for the system, but any other trips are gravy. You’re happy because you don’t feel nickeled-and-dimed every time you hop on the bus. The transit system is happy because it gets your money up front. And the environment’s happy because the setup encourages folks to ditch their cars on weekends in favor of free rides.

The major problem with this system in D.C. is that Metro’s variable fare structure means a month of commutes for people who work and live in the city costs much less than a month of rides in and out of the suburbs. So Perkins recommends that we take a lesson from the Seattle area’s Puget Pass. Riders there select a monthly pass based on the fare of a typical trip, and they get an unlimited number of rides that cost the same or less. If they take a trip that costs more, they just pay the difference from money stored on their cards.

That plan may not be quite as simple. But it sure sounds smart.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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Clinton Yates · March 24, 2011