Metro riders consider converting from paper to plastic, avoiding fare surcharge

Robert Thomson
Columnist June 21, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I need to know what’s going on with the new $1 surcharge on the use of paper Farecards, and when it starts. I have a whole bunch of them. How do I get the most out of them when converting to SmarTrip cards?

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

Pat Reed, Rockville

DG: On July 1, Metro will impose a bigger penalty on riders who use the paper Farecards, so the transit authority is also announcing some incentives to switch to the electronic SmarTrip cards.

Until the end of this month, the surcharge for using a paper card is 25 cents, although Metro tends to refer to it as the “discount” for using SmarTrip. Starting July 1, the date for all the fare changes, people who use the paper cards will pay $1 more for their regular fares than those using SmarTrip cards. Seniors and people with disabilities will be charged 50 cents more, because they get a discounted ride.

This was what the Metro board approved after first considering General Manager Richard Sarles’s proposal to go to a flat fare system for the paper cards, charging $6 for a peak-hours ride and $4 when off-peak.

For years, Metro has been waging a fairly successful campaign to shift riders from the paper cards to the rechargeable SmarTrip cards, which are easier for Metro to administer and generally easier for riders to use — as long as they don’t try to add value on a moving bus.

But charging $1 extra per ride just for choosing paper over plastic is a serious escalation of the campaign, so Metro is doing some things to make the transition easier.

The transit authority has raised the limit on the value that riders can transfer from a paper card to a SmarTrip card at a fare vending machine. It was $7. The new limit is $20. (The limit was a security measure, intended to block fraud.)

One big concern raised during the public hearings over the fare increases: If Metro is going to charge this much for paper cards, it should make the $5 SmarTrip cards easier to buy.

The transit authority says it is installing SmarTrip vending machines in all rail stations, but it won’t be done until September. Metro did announce that many stations will have them by July 1, including the top 10 stations where paper cards are sold. Among those are Foggy Bottom, Union Station, Smithsonian and Rosslyn.

People who register their SmarTrip cards can add value to them online, rather than having to do all their transactions at the station vending machines.

As of July 1, riders will be able to load one-day rail passes and 28-day rail passes onto SmarTrip cards. As of Sept. 1, Metro will offer $3 rebates to people who register their cards online. The card still will cost $5 to buy, but the $3 credit will be issued to the card five days after you first use it.

Starting in the fall, riders who have online SmarTrip accounts will be able to set up an automatic reload for their cards, which kicks in whenever the balance drops below the amount specified by the rider. This will be similar to the way some E-ZPass accounts work. The user will have to link the SmarTrip account to a credit or debit card.

Not e-Z on virginians

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I think it is outrageous that Virginia is proposing a monthly fee for E-ZPass transponders, especially when the primary reason seems to be supporting new transponder purchases that are probably driven by the high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway.

It is a disgrace that occasional toll lane users who have an E-ZPass should have to pay $12 a year for the privilege of making toll collection operations and traffic flow more efficient.

Daniel Cox, Alexandria

DG: Now that the public-comment period is over, the Virginia Department of Transportation will decide whether to impose a dollar-a-month fee on people who hold E-ZPass accounts with the agency.

During the comment period, many drivers sent copies to me of what they told VDOT. For example, John Collins of the District told the department that it should be prepared for unintended financial consequences, because he and others might establish accounts with one of the other transportation agencies that issue E-ZPasses but don’t yet charge a fee.

“I urge you instead to recover the increased cost from the new users who are creating the increased cost,” he wrote.

I think Collins’s idea about grandfathering in the current account holders to protect them from the fees has some merit, but there are other ways to limit the damage. For example, VDOT could waive the fee for frequent users, just as Maryland now does. Last year, the Maryland Transportation Authority began offering to exempt account holders from its $1.50 monthly fee if they had used their passes at least three times the previous month.

If Virginia imposes the account fee, it has a chance to learn from such examples at the beginning of its program.

Drivers can learn from others’ experience, too. They should do whatever turns out to be best for them. If they want to shop around for another agency’s account — something with Delaware or Pennsylvania, perhaps — that’s fine. But they should consider whether it’s worth their time. Collins pointed out to VDOT that he used to be an account holder in Maryland and switched to Virginia when Maryland started charging.

The trend is toward charging, and there’s no guarantee that another agency that’s free now won’t impose a fee later.

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