Bus riders having problems adding value to SmarTrip fare cards

Many bus riders in the region are having trouble adding value to their SmarTrip electronic fare cards, a persistent problem that could affect some customers for weeks.

Some passengers have received receipts from machines that say they can’t add bus fare because their cards have expired, despite the cards having expiration dates far into the future. Others have discovered the problem when they tried to board buses, only to have the cards not work.

Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said there was a “spike in complaints” last week about the bus passes — mostly from customers in the Silver Spring area. She said there is “likely a Cubic software issue,” referring to the SmarTrip vendor.

“We are working to correct it as quickly as possible,” she said Wednesday, noting that a “software fix will be tested and implemented over the next few weeks.”

Arthur Jackson of Takoma Park said Monday he tried to add $7.50 on his SmarTrip card for his weekly bus pass but couldn’t.

The oddest part of it, he said, was he received a receipt that says his card expires in 2032 and he would have to wait until then to put money on the SmarTrip card.

Who knew Metro cards even lasted that long? Jackson said he didn’t — and that he needs his bus fare sooner.

Another receipt he received said his card had a value of $6.20 but was expired. The expiration date: March 7, 1926.

Last fall Metro announced it would move from using paper bus passes to allowing riders to load seven-day bus passes onto SmarTrip cards, which can be used on Metrobus, the D.C. Circulator and several suburban transit systems. Fairfax Connector officials said some of its customers were experiencing the problem. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation estimated that about 5 percent of Ride On bus customers — 500 a day — are affected.

Metro plans to eventually replace SmarTrip, which started more than a decade ago, with a new electronic fare payment system. The company that makes the SmarTrip cards is discontinuing them and Metro has about a two-year supply.

On Monday, Jackson said he spent about two hours at a Montgomery County transit sales office trying to get the problem fixed — and 45 minutes on hold trying to reach Metro’s SmarTrip office. He finally gave up and used his rail fare to board a bus. He said he was a bit late for an appointment because of the problem.

“I just had heart surgery, and this is really frustrating,” he said, as he waited for help. Leila Sandoval, an administrative aide at the transit sales office in Silver Spring, said other commuters were having problems similar to Jackson’s; some cards were showing expiration dates of 2064 or, in some cases, 2080.

By midday Monday, she had explained to dozens of customers that there was nothing they could do at the store. Riders needed to call Metro’s SmarTrip line for help. Many people said they couldn’t get through to the SmarTrip help line number to get the issue resolved. Metro said it has added more people to help handle calls on the SmarTrip phone lines.

Metro officials said they are trying to “assist our customers to navigate the system while this computer glitch is being fixed” and are putting money back on riders’ cards if needed, depending on each person’s situation.

One tip from Metro officials: Customers should buy one seven-day pass at a time instead of trying to buy multiple cards at once to see if that solves the problem.

In Montgomery County, Sandoval said there were similar issues when Metro first rolled out the switch but it seemed they were resolved. Now they’re back.

“We just add money on cards and sell the cards,” she tried to explain to grouchy commuters. “We can’t fix the glitch here. People are getting frustrated because we can’t help them.”

The SmarTrip office can be reached by calling 888-762-7874 or e-mailing smartrip@wmata.com.

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.
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