Peak of the peak fares, malfunctions add to Metro riders' frustration

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, August 8, 2010; C02

Malfunctions, confusion, delays -- these were the things Metro managers hoped to avoid when they began planning last winter for this summer's fare increases.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Metro is already a complicated system for newcomers and tourists to figure out. Now Metro has added this peak of the peak fare.

It makes you want to laugh at this silliness, but it just makes our commute that much more frustrating. You would think someone at Metro would have figured out ahead of time that the SmarTrip cards would take longer to register the peak of the peak fare.

Try figuring out the instructions that are provided to the riders at the various stations. So sad that Metro has fallen so far so fast. Driving is looking better every day. Don't even get me started on the escalator situation.

-- Frank Gainer, The District

Last week, as Metro began Phase 2 of the fare increases, riders reported malfunctioning gates at several stations, confusion over the new signs at the vending machines and kiosks, and systemwide delays getting through the gates.

There were also problems for riders after the first round of increases June 27, but they were not as widespread because those increases were more traditional: Fares went up based on boarding time and distance traveled.

Planners knew this second round would be a lot more complicated because Metro was introducing new styles of fares: a surcharge for riding at the peak of the peak and a surcharge for using a paper Farecard.

They had hoped it wouldn't be quite as complicated as it turned out. That's why they gave themselves some extra time to get ready, splitting the fare increase into the June and August phases.

But right at the start of August, the complexities of reprogramming the fare system forced Metro to create yet another phase.

The paper cards, with their magnetic strips, have small brains that can't retain much information. It turned out that Metro couldn't do all the reprogramming needed so that the paper cards and the fare gates could do the math needed to impose both morning and afternoon peak of the peak surcharges.

So we got Phase 2a: Start charging the peak of the peak during the afternoon only. And Phase 2b: Wait till late August to add the morning surcharge.

Meanwhile, Metro is boosting the brain power of the SmarTrip cards so they can handle a new set of calculations long sought by riders. Those include the ability to add passes onto the plastic cards and add value online.

But the programming was slowing down the fare gates. Muscle memory tells regular riders how to tap their cards to the gate's SmarTrip target and how quickly to proceed. The more complex programming requires the gate and the card to talk a tad longer.

The extra beat would be noticeable only to regular riders -- but there are hundreds of thousands of them, and many had close encounters with the gates' orange barriers as they strode forward.

Programmers will try to speed that up, but for now, this is Metro's advice: Hold the card on the SmarTrip target until the barriers part.

Another challenge had to do with our own brain power in absorbing the more-complex fare details on the signs on the vending machines and the station kiosks. Metro found it had to supplement those signs with two more signs, both in yellow.

A small circular one advised riders that the 20-cent peak of the peak surcharge would come in two phases. A larger, rectangular sign advised that riders using paper Farecards would be charged an extra quarter and that the bigger sign, the one showing the station-to-station charges, was showing the cost for SmarTrip users only.

What's next? A quiz?

Some riders wrote in to point out that the station-to-station signs are most useful to tourists and transit newbies. The regulars, the ones who take the same trips over and over and use SmarTrip cards, don't stare at the signs. The new riders are more likely to look at the signs and put the exact fare on paper Farecards, so the signs should give the paper Farecard cost of a trip.

In fact, that's Metro's plan now. In the next few weeks, all the signs are going to get a makeover so they list the one-way trip cost with a paper card and include a line stating that SmarTrip users pay 25 cents less.

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