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

By Ann Scott Tyson and Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; B01

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?"

Graham said he had not been informed of the change, which a Metro spokeswoman said was approved by General Manager Richard Sarles. Metro had no immediate estimate of the revenue that would be gained from the policy.

"We've got to find ways to stop looking for fistfights with our customers," Graham said. "We've been through the mill on these issues, and the more we are flexible and appreciative the better off we are going to be."

Metro said the policy change coincides with the reduction in the price of SmarTrip cards from $5 to $2.50. The concern was that people would exploit the lower price by buying the cards and adding a small amount of value and then ride the system and exit with a negative fare, Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates said.

Allowing customers to exit with a negative balance has been "a convenience for customers," Gates said. But "at this point in time, we are planning to go forward" with the exit restriction.

Another reason Metro offered for the change was to equalize the treatment of SmarTrip and paper fare card users. Riders with paper fare cards must buy exit fare if they do not have enough value on the cards. They also pay a 25-cent surcharge, implemented this month.

It was unclear what would happen to SmarTrip users who couldn't come up with the exit fare or whether customers would be unable to enter the system or board a bus if their SmarTrip cards showed less than the base fare.

Metro advised customers to plan ahead for the change by paying greater attention to the balance on their cards.

Andre Perry, 58, of Largo said he doesn't see Metro's plan as unreasonable; he will pay more attention.

"I'll always make sure I got money on my card," he said at McPherson Square on Wednesday. "I got to get to work, back and forth."

Other customers, however, said Metro should make the switch easier for them -- at a minimum by allowing riders to add exit fare by using credit cards.

The new rule adds to the "normal Metro frustration," including the heat of this summer and some of the cars not having air conditioning, said Michelle Danis, 39, of Fairfax. One of her concerns, she said, is the delay that may result from long lines at the exit fare machines.

Danis ran into a negative balance Wednesday evening as she was leaving Farragut North. This situation was like most others, she said. "I would have no cash."

Ryan Dasilva, 32, who was also leaving Farragut North, said Metro should install credit card processors on the exit fare machines or place ATMs inside the exit gates.

"It's another thing to hate about Metro," he said.

Dasilva, of Arlington County, said he will have to keep a close check on his balance and plan accordingly. But it's Metro that should change its routine, he said.

"It's the 21st century," Dasilva said. "They just need to update this whole system."

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