Farecard, Metro's much-maligned automatic fare-collecting system, is about to become a permanent fixture in the lives of Washington subway riders.
Local government officials have concluded that Farecard's replacement by tokens and turnstiles would eliminate the flexibility needed to balance differing political and financial concerns within the area. They also have concluded that such a change might discourage ridership because all passengers would have to pay the same high fare regardless of the lengths of their trips.
A committee report offering these conclusions is scheduled to come before the Metro board today. The board will have to decide formally whether to stick with Farecard, but it is unlikely to go against the specialists' recommendation.
"The future of Metro is tied to that equipment," said Cleatus Barnett, Metro board chairman. Barnett, who is from Montgomery County, was on the board when it first approved Farecard and has never wavered in his conviction that a system like Farecard is necessary.
Since the first section of the Blue Line opened in July of 1977, the Farecard machinery has had a history of jamming gates, vending machines that spit back dollar bills and unfriendly "out of order" signs. Out-of-town visitors often find the system confusing, a feeling frequently shared by residents.
The committee's vote for Farecard comes at a time, however, when the system is working better than ever, according to Metro maintenance records. So far this month, for example, 97 percent of all the Farecard equipment -- vending machines, gates and Addfare machines -- has worked when the subway opened at 6 a.m. The goal is 95 percent, and in years past the availability percentage has sometimes dropped into the 80s.
In a 30-minute check during Tuesday morning's rush hour, for example, hundreds of commuters passed through the exit gates at Farragut West, Metro's most heavily used station, and not one gate had to be closed while a station attendant fished for a card that got jammed.
Several people had to back out of the line and "Go to Addfare," which means their tickets were not worth enough to pay for the trip. But that isn't a snafu, and none of the passengers seemed surprised anyway.
The Farecard equipment now used on 37 miles of the subway and on order for the next 23 will cost Metro a total of $53 million. It will take $8 million to make that equipment simpler and more reliable and at least another $22 million to equip the stations on the remaining 40 miles of the system, Metro General Manager Richard S. Page said in a report to the board in July.
Turnstiles and token-vending machines for the entire 101-mile system can be purchased for $21.4 million, Page said, and the simpler token-turnstile system can be maintained for $13 million less annually than Farecard.
The problem with scrapping Farecard, as Page's report seemed to favor, is that the theory of Washington fare collection would have to be scrapped with it. That theory holds that the farther you travel, the more you should pay.
Urban transit systems were trapped for years in token-based fare structures that required a simple, flat fee to work. With the flat fee, inner-city residents taking short trips pay the same as suburbanites taking long ones. Thus, inner-city residents subsidize the suburbanites.
Bus systems resorted to zones, but zones are also unfair. If you board a bus in Montgomery County one block from the District line (a zone boundary), it costs $1 to ride to the Federal Triangle. If you board inside the District at the Chevy Chase Circle terminal, it costs only 55 cents. What happens, of course, is that dozens of Montgomery County residents walk across the line and board in the District, thus defeating the purpose of the zone charge.
Farecard makes it possible to charge an infinite number of fares. During rush hour, the rider who gets on at New Carrollton pays $1.40 to get to Metro Center; the rider who boards the same train at Eastern Market pays only 55 cents to get to the same place.
Farecard will do tricks. It can charge different fares at different times of day. It can automatically award discounts to anyone who boards or exits at Deanwood or Minnesota Avenue. It can accept two-week passes and special tickets from the elderly and handicapped without pointing fingers at them.
Tokens won't do any of those things. When the committee began to look at the token system, its members discovered that if Metro had to raise the same amount of revenue from a flat-fare token system that it now gets from multifare Farecards, the cost of a subway ride would be unacceptably high, particularly in the inner city.
If Metro charged two tokens for riders boarding in the suburbs and one for riders boarding in the District, the rider who goes from National Airport to the Pentagon (or, on future lines, from Grosvenor to Bethesda) would be paying twice what a D.C. ridr was paying for a trip of the same distance. That, too was politically unacceptable.
Metro has been surveying some of its passengers recently and has discovered that there is a perception of unreliability about the Farecard system among a majority. However, most of them say, if the system worked, it would be fine, and most of them do not want to pay more for a short trip than somebody else pays for a long trip.
"The last thing we discovered," one committee member said, "was that we would still have to accept $1 bills and still have to vend tokens in machines. Those areas are difficult with the Farecard equipment, and would not go away with tokens.
"Thus," he said, "the Farecard."
Officials of Cubic Western Data, which builds the Farecard equipment, obviously are concerned about the flood of bad publicity that has accompanied Farecard.
Jerome M. Ringer, assistant to the president and director of public relations for the parent Cubic Corporation, worried during a recent interview in San Diego about the effect of Farecard's problems on Cubic's other business. Cubic is a high-technology company that had $171 million in sales in 1979. More than half its business comes from government and more than one-third from the Department of Defense, whose buyers happen to be located in Washington where they ride the subway.
"If you've got one hour with a customer and spend 45 minutes talking about automatic fare collection in Washington, I think over a period of time it will affect us," Ringer said. He recommended to management, he said, that it put in a "logical, well-informed public relations program" in Washington to counter the adverse publicity. Management said, "We'll think about it," Ringer said.
The general managers of the other new subway systems using Cubic fare collecting equipment -- San Francisco's BART and Atlanta's MARTA -- all said in interviews they have had problems.
Whether transit managers like Cubic or not has become irrelevant if they want to use automatic fare collection. Both IBM and Control Data Corporation have abandoned the field and Cubic is the only American manufacturer seriously left in the business of building such equipment, transit professionals agree.
If Metro is to stay with Farecard, it must soon order equipment for the last 40 miles of the system, and Cubic regards that as the biggest prize presently available in the United States.
"If you take [Metro] away, the U.S. domestic market is not worth it," said R. L. de Kozen, senior vice president and general manager at Cubic Western and the man who peddled Cubic to Metro in the first place.
De Kozen also said:
If Metro abandons the automatic fare collecting concept, its annual operating subsidy will increase between $40 million and $100 million by 1990 because of the loss of revenues that can be collected only if mileage-based fares are charged. Whether those numbers are correct is irrelevant; the committee has decided essentially the same thing.
The operating costs of Farecard can be cut substantially if Metro will modify the tickets so that they come off rolls in the vending machines instead of being cut separately and then stacked in the machines. Metro officials agree.
Since July, when Metro itself assumed from Cubic the responsibility for maintaining Farecard, reliability has improved markedly. Metro officials agree.
Cubic did nothing illegal in obtaining the Farecard contract from Metro after Metro canceled a developmental contract with Control Data Corporation. Control Data, in a civil suit, has charged Metro and Cubic with conspiracy. Federal prosecutors have been investigating the Cubic contract, although no indictments have been returned. "I just feel totally virtuous on the [Metro] job," de Kozen said. "We ought to be called into the White House and given a medal," he said, because Cubic's price for building Farecard was cheaper than Control Data's would have been.
De Kozen had a tough time winning at Metro, because Jackson Graham, then Metro's general manager, did not like Cubic. Graham confirmed that in a recent interview. So de Kozen went through the back door and approached various Metro board members.
"When Graham wouldn't talk to us," de Kozen said, "we decided to get some literature to the board . . . I told the Control Data lawyer [during the taking of depositions in the lawsuit], 'you're stealing some of my pride here. I did the world's greatest marketing job. . . . All we did was bring attention to things and stand there so if the ball got dropped we might be able to catch it.'" CAPTION: Picture 1, Passenger uses Farecard to pass through gate.; Picture 2, This Farecard is worth $1.60.