Metro to Balance Transfer Fees for SmarTrip Users

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008

Beginning next year, tens of thousands of Metro riders who transfer from bus to rail will save 50 cents a trip if they use electronic SmarTrip cards, officials said yesterday. The long-promised change is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 4, the same day the agency is eliminating paper transfers.

That means someone who boards a regional bus and transfers to Metrorail within three hours will pay a regular SmarTrip bus fare of $1.25, then receive a 50-cent discount on the rail trip. The rail discount applies regardless of time of day. So, for example, someone who rides a bus to the Grosvenor-Strathmore Station on the Red Line in Montgomery County and then travels to Farragut North in downtown Washington would pay $2.75 instead of the usual rush-hour fare of $3.25 for the subway ride.

But customers transferring from rail to bus, who get a 90-cent discount and pay 35 cents for their bus trip, will pay 75 cents for the same bus ride under the new system.

The new system is designed to balance discounts to both groups of riders, bus-to-rail and rail-to-bus, with the discount kicking in on the second ride of each trip.

Bus-to-rail riders have long complained about being left out of the equation. In 2004, the Metro board agreed to balance the discounts for SmarTrip card users. But the agency had been unable to put the system in place because of delays in getting SmarTrip farebox technology on all regional bus systems. Last month, however, the last regional bus system, TheBus in Prince George's County, finished installing SmarTrip.

Still, Metro officials wanted to delay implementing the discounts. They told board members at a committee meeting yesterday that they were worried about confusing riders, who are concerned about the phaseout of paper transfers.

"I hesitate to implement something else that could be perceived as a fare increase," said Sara Wilson, Metro assistant general manager for corporate strategy and communication.

The balanced discounts would also cost Metro about $2 million a year in revenue, which the agency would shift to regional bus agencies. Metro, like other public entities, faces a severe financial crunch, and officials are worried about the agency's ability to maintain service levels as it prepares next year's budget.

But during a heated discussion, board members said they wanted the balanced discounts to take effect when paper transfers are eliminated so riders will have a greater incentive to switch from cash to plastic.

"It's taken us four years, and we still don't have it," said Metro board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, referring to the balanced discounts.

"This could be impacting such a significant number of customers in a positive way," said Catherine M. Hudgins, who represents Virginia.

When Metro eliminates paper transfers, only riders using SmarTrip -- which includes senior SmarTrip cards -- or weekly bus passes will get free transfers between buses within a three-hour window. Otherwise, riders who transfer will pay two full fares. A bus ride costs $1.25 with SmarTrip and $1.35 with cash.

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