Like rotary telephones and manual typewriters, exact bus fare in Washington is about to fade into yesteryear.
Metro's board approved spending $24.7 million yesterday for new bus fare boxes that will accept the same magnetic Farecards used on the subway system. Bus passengers will no longer be required to provide the $1.10 fare in exact cash and will be able to buy a Farecard aboard the bus and feed it through a "reader" or use a Farecard left over from a subway trip.
The fare boxes, which will be installed on all 1,400 buses by June 2002, also will accept Smartcards, the renewable plastic fare cards that are waved over a sensor and that were introduced on the subway system recently.
The boxes will make travel easier for bus riders, said Nadeem Tahir, director of Metro's office of systems. "Sometimes when you get on a bus, you only have $5 and you have to ask everybody on the bus if they have change for the $5," Tahir said. "These new fare boxes will take coins, $1 bills, $5 bills, $20 bills, magnetic Farecards and Smartcard. The idea is to make it seamless--as easy for people to use buses as to use trains."
The new boxes will still accept cash, Tahir said. But they will return change in the form of a Farecard, operating in much the same way as the Farecard vending machines in subway stations.
Metro's existing fare boxes are about 13 years old and are wearing out, transit officials said. They said new parts for those boxes are no longer available from the manufacturer, making repairs difficult. Metro loses revenue each year because of malfunctioning fare boxes, although agency officials called the amount "minimal."
Metro officials are talking to other bus and rail systems in the region to select fare boxes that would be compatible with those systems, so that a Metro bus rider could use the same card to pay for a trip on Virginia Railway Express or the Montgomery County Ride-On, for example. The Maryland Mass Transit Administration has agreed to buy for its Baltimore buses whatever kind of box Metro selects.
"If we're able to pull it off, we'll be one of the biggest success stories of the region," Metro General Manager Richard A. White said, referring to the prospect of having the same fare boxes on bus and train systems in the District, Maryland and Virginia. "It will be a huge step in making transit attractive to people."
The new boxes will help boost the image of Metrobus, White said. "If we treat bus and rail as separate systems, it perpetuates the notion that the bus system is a second-class citizen," he said. "We need to redefine the image of the bus system, to show that it's not just for people who have no other choice. . . . We need to get the image of the bus system turned around."
Although yesterday's Metro board vote was unanimous, Chris Zimmerman, Arlington County's representative to the board, said he questioned the practicality of the new fare boxes. Noting that Metro hopes to eventually have all passengers using the plastic Smartcard, Zimmerman wondered why the agency is investing in boxes that read Farecards made from paper.
"We want to be able to make this the most convenient fare system for our customers," Zimmerman said. "And a great improvement on that is the Smartcard. Does it, in fact, make sense to have the annoying swipe system on the buses with the paper cards, when the whole agency is moving toward Smartcards? It seems that these new fare boxes really underline the poor stepchild status of the buses."
White agreed that Metro ultimately plans to eliminate the paper Farecards in favor of Smartcards, but he said that development is 10 or 15 years away. In the meantime, the buses need new fare boxes, he said.
Some buses will get the new boxes as early as 2001, Metro officials said. They said they expect the boxes will boost ridership but have made no projections.
Metrobus ridership has been on the rise and is approaching rail ridership levels. The buses account for 478,000 passenger trips per weekday, officials said. The trains carry about 535,000 passenger trips each weekday.