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SmarTrip Upgrades Pushed To 2010

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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

Metro is overhauling the office in charge of the popular SmarTrip electronic fare cards after internal audits found that failures by the main contractor and agency managers have added at least $2 million in costs and three years in delays for long-awaited, customer-friendly features.

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Continuing software issues and the office shakeup have slowed the project even more. As a result, features to make the plastic card more convenient and versatile, which were supposed to be ready next month, will not be working until 2010, officials said.

By then, the card is supposed to be able to compute all bus and rail fares and special passes offered by Metro and regional transit partners, such as Virginia Railway Express's Transit Link Card, Metrorail's 7-Day Fast Pass, and Montgomery County's Ride On monthly pass. The passes provide discounts, and many riders use them to save money.

Riders also will have to wait until 2010 before they can automatically add money to their cards, the way drivers do with the popular E-ZPass electronic toll payment system. Currently, riders can use the cards only to pay for a single bus or subway ride and to park at Metro lots. To add money, riders must use fare machines at subway stations or on buses.

Riders have been repeatedly promised these features by officials from Metro and Cubic Transportations Systems, which has been paid almost $15 million to upgrade SmarTrip hardware and software and fare collection equipment, with few results.

The disclosures also raise questions about Metro's management and spending during a time when the agency's fiscal woes forced it to implement the largest fare and fee increases in the agency's 32-year history. The audit report by Metro's inspector general faults the agency, for example, for taking too long to make decisions -- one took three years -- and failing to include contract language penalizing Cubic for missing deadlines.

The resulting delays affected Metro's contract with a second company that runs the SmarTrip customer service center and cost the agency an additional $1.4 million, the audit found. Since the audit's release this spring, Metro estimates revisions to the Cubic contract will cost $825,000 more.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. acknowledged the problems with Cubic and agency management but said he took immediate action to overhaul SmarTrip and tighten oversight to ensure the work gets done.

"We are paying attention to everything that's happening," he said.

Metro Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman acknowledged that delays have resulted in frustrations "in getting the improvement that everyone wants." At the same time, he said, Metro has been at a disadvantage in dealing with Cubic because of its dominance in the market.

"They are a difficult party to deal with, and we don't have much leverage," Zimmerman said. "We're at the mercy of folks whose business it is to get money out of government."

Cubic officials declined repeated requests for comment.


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