About time for cutting Metro’s SmarTrip fee

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 31, 2013

On Oct. 1, Metro will cut the cost of its plastic SmarTrip Farecard from $5 to $2. It’s been a long time coming.

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. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Good move by Metro. I had some out-of-town visitors in last month who really resented the $5 charge. Who thought $5 was a good idea?

Peter Hoagland, Warrenton

DG: The cards seemed cutting-edge when they were introduced to riders, in 1999. According to a Washington Post article from that time, “The $5 charge — half of what Metro will pay for each card — is designed to discourage riders from losing or collecting the plastic cards.”

By 2010, the cost of each card to Metro had fallen to $3.40, but the transit authority couldn’t figure out how to cut the $5 cost without creating an incentive for cheating on fares. (It had to do with taking a long, high-value ride, then exiting the system with a negative balance on the card, buying a new card and repeating the process.)

Occasional riders, tourists and people with low incomes chafed at the need to spend $5 just for the privilege of paying the fare. Many prefer to use the very old-fashioned paper Farecards, but Metro made that a more expensive proposition when it imposed a $1 surcharge on each ride taken with a paper card.

In announcing the price cut last week, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles noted that the SmarTrip then will cost the equivalent of the extra charge a rider pays for a round trip using a paper card. One more reason to switch, Metro officials hope.

So, as of Oct. 1, riders can buy the card for $2 at Metro sales offices and commuter stores. If they use one of the SmarTrip card vending machines in Metrorail stations, they will continue to pay $10, but that will become a $2 payment for the card and $8 worth of fare value.

And about those negative balances: Soon, all cards that have a negative balance greater than $1.50 will be required to add fare at the exit machines before passing through the fare gates.

More changes in the fare system are coming, Sarles said.

By now, the SmarTrip collection system is about as cutting-edge as a rotary phone.

The transit authority plans to award a contract this year for a new payment system, something in addition to SmarTrip. Riders would then be able to pay at the fare gates by tapping a mobile phone or a debit or credit card.

Metro will eventually eliminate the paper Farecards entirely.

Pits of despair

My column focuses on our transportation troubles, so I rarely get letters from people who want to talk about how much they like either the traffic or the transit system. But that was especially true following a Post poll in June that found that 56 percent of people in the Washington region rate Metrorail as good and 15 percent rate the service excellent.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The trains are absolutely the pits. They never get cleaned. I often have to go through a few cars to find one in which I’m not choked by mold.

Tonight, based on the arrival sign at the other end of the platform, it looked like the arriving Orange Line train was bound for New Carrollton. There were, however, no signs on the cars. The driver made no announcement about the train line. Turns out it was headed for Largo.

A few times, I have contacted the central office to ask why an emergency number is not posted in the train cars. Each time I’m told to use the speakers at the end of the car. We now know from Post reporting that they do not work. Metro is spending inordinate amounts of money on inane signage but refuses to provide any emergency communication services.

It should be a requirement of employment that all personnel, especially executives, use public transportation each and every day.

It’s despicable how they keep raising rates while the services continue to decline.

Kate O’Mara, Gambrills

DG: Metro’s case is that the service is not declining. In fact, by Metro’s measures of reliability and on-time performance, it’s improving. But those quarterly reports, with their overall percentages, fail to capture the experiences of individual riders. And, despite the overall positive rating among people in The Post poll, respondents raised concerns about reliability and cost.

Looking back over the past decade, Metro has made advances in its communications, such as the e-mail and text alerts and the stream of updates on its Twitter feed. There has been less progress in direct communications on the platforms and aboard trains. O’Mara cites examples that will be familiar to many riders. The transit police number, 202-962-2121, should be more visible in the stations and aboard trains. But do call 911 in an emergency.

Reports that train operators have sometimes turned off the intercoms should be taken very seriously. That’s the riders’ lifeline, and there should be zero tolerance for operators who cut that off.

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