Rocket (and Subway) Science

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Metro's electronic SmarTrip cards are no geniuses, but the agency hopes to make them Mensa ready over the next year. New technology will allow the cards to compute all fares and special passes that Metro and most of its regional bus partners offer, and make it far easier to add money for trips.

As it stands, SmarTrip cards can't do too much: Riders can use them to pay for a single bus or subway ride and to park at Metro lots, most of which do not accept any other form of payment.

The cards cannot factor an array of special passes -- such as Metrorail's 7-Day Fast Pass, Montgomery County's Ride-About and Alexandria's DASH Pass -- that many riders use to save money. So riders who park and use special passes must carry SmarTrip cards and old-fashioned paper cards. It costs Metro about $500,000 a year for paper fare cards.

Technology upgrades will enable the electronic cards to calculate special passes, allowing riders to ditch their paper cards and saving the agency money.

To put money on the cards, riders must now use machines in subway stations or on buses. Each trip deducts from their total, like a debit card.

The new technology will enable riders to automatically add money to SmarTrip cards the same way drivers do with the popular E-ZPass electronic toll payment system. Riders will be able to link SmarTrip to their credit cards, which will automatically add money when their balance dips below a designated level.

Officials with Cubic Transportation Systems, which has an $11.6 million contract to upgrade the electronic chip and related hardware and software on SmarTrip, said the new technology will be in place and glitch-free by late next year.

At the same time, Metro is trying to make it easier for riders to buy the cards by selling them at more locations. Until recently, the cards were sold primarily online, at Metro sales offices, commuter stores and vending machines at Metrorail stations with parking. Only a handful of grocery stores sold them.

Last month, Metro announced that more Giant stores will sell the card. And by the middle of next year, Metro hopes that a few hundred neighborhood retailers, including convenience stores, will sell the cards and have devices to let customers add money to them, according to Greg Garback, Metro's SmarTrip manager.

"We want to have as broad a distribution as possible," he said.

Riders have long clamored for a more convenient and versatile card, but over the years, efforts to revamp the cards have run into numerous delays. Paul Orloff, Cubic's eastern region marketing director, said it has taken a long time to make the necessary changes because the card needed to be compatible with many regional bus systems.

"It adds another level of complexity," he said. But, he said, Cubic is "on track" to complete the latest upgrades on time.

The technology changes include reformatting the chip inside cards with a new operating system and replacing outdated fare collection equipment, including more than 1,700 SmarTrip readers on fare gates. Riders will not need to buy new cards to use the new technology; their cards will automatically be updated the first time they use them.

The changes come as the blue-and-green plastic card assumes a central role in how people use transit in the Washington region. Eight of 10 regional bus systems accept SmarTrip cards, and the remaining two, PRTC OmniRide and Prince George's County's TheBus, are expected to have that capability next year, Metro officials said.

Also, under a fare proposal that the Metro board plans to consider next week, only riders using cash would have to pay a proposed dime increase in the cost of a bus ride. There would be no increase for SmarTrip users.

Like other transit systems, Metro is trying to shift from cash and paper to electronic fare cards to save money, reduce fraud, speed bus boarding and make transit more user-friendly.

"When you get in your car, you don't feed dollar bills into it, so it doesn't feel like it is costing you dollars," said Maryland board member Peter Benjamin, a former Metro executive who was one of the chief architects of SmarTrip. "When you go on transit, you've got to feed money into devices -- a device is always taking your dollars," he said. "So we've created a psychological barrier that says, 'You gotta pay us.' "

But if customers don't have to think about how much their ride costs, then transit becomes more like a car "and the more people want to ride," he said.

Metro has issued about 2.5 million SmarTrip cards since they were introduced in 1999. About 1.5 million cards are in active use, with about 50,000 cards sold monthly. On Metrorail, about 60 to 65 percent of riders tap their cards to the target on the fare gate to enter and exit stations. On Metrobus, about 22 percent of riders pay with cards.

On some Express bus routes, such as the popular 11Y from Mount Vernon to Farragut Square, almost all riders use SmarTrip, said Garback, who also rides that route.

After regional buses started accepting the card this year, use soared on some commuter routes. On the Loudoun County Commuter Bus, about 96 percent of riders pay their fares with SmarTrip, Garback said.

By the end of next year, Metro predicts, almost 70 percent of rail riders and 40 percent of bus riders will be using the card. To increase use, Metro and area governments plan to launch a marketing campaign early next year.

"We will be promoting it very aggressively because we want to get it into more people's hands," said Howard Benn, chief of customer and operations support for Montgomery's RideOn bus. "The whole object is one card, many rides."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company