Out With Paper, in With Plastic

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Metro and many of the suburban bus systems are making two important changes today. First, paper transfers, which for years provided a free switch from bus to bus or a discount from Metrorail to a bus, will no longer be issued. Riders must use SmarTrip, the plastic card with the electronic chip that can add and subtract fare value. Second, riders who use SmarTrip will be able to transfer either from rail to bus or bus to rail for the same discount. Here's how it works:

No Paper Transfers

Old way: When passengers boarded a bus, they got paper coupons from the drivers entitling them to board other buses for free within two hours. Riders entering Metrorail stations also could obtain transfer coupons entitling them to a 90-cent discount on buses.

New way: The SmarTrip cards follow riders' travels and deduct the proper fare. The cards are smart enough to know whether the person is going from a bus to a bus, a train to a bus or a bus to a train. The transfer time window has increased from two to three hours. No SmarTrip card? No discounts and no free rides if you're paying cash or using bus tokens.

Impact: About 30 percent of all bus boardings involve a transfer. It costs the transit authority about $300,000 a year to print and distribute the transfers. Plus, some people cheated by giving or selling the paper transfers to others, thus denying the fare revenue to Metro. Bus managers also believe that the more people use SmarTrip, the faster boardings will become.

New Train-Bus Discount

Old way: A Metrorail passenger could get the 90-cent discount going from the train to a bus. But the transit authority had no technology for recording a transfer from a bus to a train. Riders doing that paid the bus fare, then the train fare. Unfair, riders said.

New way: SmarTrip knows where you've been and can figure the discount from bus to rail or rail to bus. The new discount either way will be 50 cents. Metro calls it the "balanced transfer."

Impact: Riders who got the 90-cent discount will get less of a break. But on the reverse route, they'll get a 50-cent savings they didn't have before. On a round trip, they save a dollar -- if they use SmarTrip cards. If they pay cash, they lose that dollar.

SmarTrip Advice

Get the feeling it pays to have a SmarTrip card? That's the idea. Metro, like other transit agencies, has been steering passengers toward the plastic cards to save operating expenses and speed up the movement of people past fareboxes and fare gates. When the fares increased in January 2008, Metro gave bus riders a 10-cent fare break, charging $1.25 if they used SmarTrip.

Buying cards: Metro charges $5 for the cards, although they cost Metro less than that. They can be purchased on Metro's Web site, at http://www.wmata.com, at Metro sales offices or at Metrorail stations with parking facilities (because they're needed to pay for parking). But they also are available at many commuter stores, Giant supermarkets and CVS stores across the Washington region.

For seniors: Metro has introduced a special SmarTrip card that gives the proper fare break to people 65 and older. It's bright yellow, to distinguish it from the regular SmarTrip card, which is blue and green. To buy the card, seniors need to show a government-issued photo ID with proof of age at Metro sales offices, commuter stores and some public libraries in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The SmarTrip office at 888-762-7874 has more information.

Adding value: Although Metro is expanding the number of places to buy cards, it hasn't done the same with the system for adding fare value to them. There are basically two choices:

· In Metrorail stations: Not all of the fare vending machines can add value to a SmarTrip. Use one marked "Passes/Farecards." Touch the card to the circular target with the SmarTrip emblem. Then add value by credit or debit card, cash, a used paper Farecard or Metrochek valued at less than $7 or an unused Metrochek or Farecard of any value. Passes cannot be loaded onto SmarTrip yet. Don't forget to tap the SmarTrip to the target again to complete the transaction.

· On buses: This is the part that will take some getting used to, and drivers have been trained to help passengers go through the five steps at the farebox. 1) Push the add value button on the left side. 2) Touch the card to the target with the SmarTrip emblem. 3) Put in coins (but not pennies), Metrobus tokens or $1, $5, $10 or $20 bills. 4) Touch the card again to add that value. 5) Touch the card another time to deduct the fare for your ride.

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