D.C. Metro won't let SmarTrip users leave with insufficient fare

A SmarTrip card.
A SmarTrip card.
By Ann Scott Tyson and Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Metro is implementing a policy that will require the region's hundreds of thousands of SmarTrip card users to have sufficient fare on their cards to exit the rail system.

Currently, SmarTrip users are allowed to exit with a negative balance on the electronic fare cards. The outstanding sum is subtracted from the total when the customer adds value.

Under the new policy, SmarTrip users will be turned back at the exit gates if the cost of the trip exceeds the balance on the card. They will be required to add value using cash-only exit fare machines. Metro did not set an effective date for the policy but said it would be implemented in the fall.

The news was part of a double hit for Metro riders as the transit agency also announced that it will begin charging a 20-cent "peak-of-the-peak" fee for rail trips taken between 7:30 and 9 a.m. weekdays, beginning Monday.

The morning rush-hour surcharge follows a 20-cent charge imposed Aug. 3 for trips between 4:30 and 6 p.m. weekdays. Metro delayed the morning increase after implementing the fare changes proved to be more complex than anticipated.

The fee is based on when a customer enters the fare gate at a Metrorail station and is part of a wide range of fare increases expected to generate nearly $109 million to help close a $189 million shortfall in Metro's operating budget for this fiscal year.

About 75 percent of Metrorail riders and 60 percent of Metrobus riders use SmarTrip cards, Metro said.

News of the policy generated an immediate outcry from customers.

Dianette Wilson, 48, of the District said she learned a lesson from the service industry that Metro apparently hasn't. "It's all about doing something for a customer so they'll come back a second time."

"What if you have to go somewhere where you don't know what the fare is going to be, or have a bill that Metro won't break?" she said while exiting the system at McPherson Square.

Metro board member Jim Graham, also a D.C. Council member (D-Ward 1), said the customer inconvenience is unlikely to be worth any recouped revenue.

"I would imagine that it's a small financial impact that's going to lead to still some more dissatisfaction," Graham said. "Is it worth the candle? What are we going to gain, and what are we going to lose in terms of customer relations, because of this?"

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