Metro posts new fare signs after mix-up delays rate increase

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; B05

Metrorail riders confronted malfunctioning fare gates, glitches with SmarTrip cards and confusion over fares Monday as Metro prepared to relaunch on Tuesday phase two of its largest and most complex fare increase.

The difficulties began Sunday, when Metro officials realized that new fare signs posted at stations over the weekend neglected to tell riders using paper farecards that they had to pay 25 cents more per trip than those using SmarTrip cards.

"In the process of changing the signs, the distinction between paper and plastic was not conveyed," said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. About 30 percent of Metrorail riders use the paper cards, and many of them were delayed after buying cards Sunday, only to be informed they had to add another 25 cents.

Metro postponed the fare increase until Tuesday -- at an estimated loss of $60,000. The agency then called for emergency volunteers from its staff to post signs in every station, informing customers of the delay and of the 25-cent surcharge for paper cards.

"At high noon today . . . about 20 to 25 staff were assigned to fan out to stations" to tape up the paper signs on every fare machine and kiosk, Farbstein said, pulling out a yellow sign and roll of tape from a brown paper bag as she posted the notices at Cleveland Park Station.

By the end of the month, Farbstein said, Metro will post new fare signs at each station that will display the higher, paper-card ticket prices and tell SmarTrip card users that they will get a 25-cent discount. "It's easier [to understand] the other way around," Farbstein said, referring to the decision to post the actual ticket fares for people who buy paper tickets at the machines, because SmarTrip card users tend to add money to their cards in larger chunks.

Apart from added confusion over a multiphase, nearly $109 million rail and bus fare increase that Metro officials acknowledge was already perplexing to many riders, customers at some rail stations Monday faced slow-reading SmarTrip cards, an inability to download SmartBenefits and malfunctioning fare gates.

"Hold on! Hold on! One at a time!" a station manager at the Foggy Bottom Station told a line of customers, all of whom had farecard problems.

"I couldn't get SmartBenefits here or in Vienna," said Eileen Lavelle, 29, a fellowship coordinator at George Washington University. She said she e-mailed Metro but got no response and so went to the station, only to be told by a station manager that the SmartBenefits system was down. "It's annoying because it's cutting into my day," she said.

The problem was not systemwide, Farbstein said.

Fare gates were another problem contributing to the line of frustrated riders at Foggy Bottom, and technicians had opened up several of the machines to inspect them at midday.

Cables leading between the station's computer and the fare gates needed repair, which was vital to ensure that new fare tables were properly updated in the fare gates, Farbstein said. "We have specialists who have been working to fix it," she said.

"My SmarTrip wasn't working here today," said Justin Reed, 25, a consultant from Arlington County, as he stood in line for the station manager.

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