Metro may not cut price of SmarTrip cards

A SmarTrip card.
A SmarTrip card.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 10:07 PM

A Metro board panel backed away Thursday from a flawed plan to cut the price of SmarTrip cards amid concerns that it would allow customers to manipulate the system and that possible fixes would be overly complicated.

Several members of the finance committee of Metro's board of directors suggested that leaving the price of the electronic fare card unchanged at $5 might be the best option.

"The status quo is looking more and more appealing to me," said Jim Graham, who is also a member of the D.C. Council. "The decision [to cut the price] was made on an erroneous basis, a factual error."

The board decided to reduce the price of SmarTrip cards to $2.50 this summer as it approved the biggest fare increase in the history of the transit agency. The fare hike was part of a plan to cover a $189 million shortfall in Metro's operating budget for the fiscal year that started July 1.

The SmarTrip price reduction was intended to encourage more riders to use the cards, which enable faster boarding of buses and passage through fare gates at rail stations. The decision was also based on information that the cost of the cards to Metro had fallen to less than $2.50.

Two problems emerged: First, Metro actually pays $3.40 for each card, officials said. Also, because riders can exit with a negative balance on SmarTrip cards, reducing the price to $2.50 would create an opportunity for people to take trips costing as much as $5.20 on rail or $6 on buses for only $2.50. Metro staff estimated that the agency could lose up to $1 million each month under such a scenario.

Metro's staff devised several proposals for fixing the problem, but all were problematic because of technical problems, inconvenience to customers or concerns about misuse.

At Thursday's meeting, board members heard about two options: maintaining the status quo, or reducing the card price to $2.50 but requiring riders to buy a card with at least $2.50 in stored value. The latter, however, would have still allowed manipulation of the system, although to a lesser degree, board members said.

Committee chairwoman Catherine Hudgins, a Virginia representative, said: "We are saying to the customer, 'We wanted to do this. We wish we could, but we are not,' '' she said.

Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin, of Maryland, asked staff members to examine another option and report back soon. That plan would cut the SmarTrip price to $4 and minimize the threat of misuse, but it would require more software development.

"It's potentially complicated," said Steve Holland, the Metro staff member providing the SmarTrip options.

On another matter of strong rider interest, the board's customer service committee heard a report by Dave Kubicek, Metro's operations chief, on the results of a $225,000 independent assessment of escalator and elevator maintenance by Vertical Transportation Excellence.

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