New fare boxes on Metrobuses have freed passengers from the burden of exact change, allowing them to board by simply waving an electronic SmarTrip card.
But the new devices also mean the end to an old habit that many valued: the penny dump.
The high-tech fare boxes do not accept pennies, eliminating one of the last places in the region where the copper coins were welcome.
Parking meters, soda machines, stamp dispensers, coin-operated laundries, newspaper boxes -- all reject the lowly one-cent coin. And come August, the last of the 1,460 Metrobuses get the new fare boxes and join the trend. No longer will riders be able to lighten their pockets and dump up to 125 pennies to pay for today's regular bus fare.
Vanmsee Kanshi, 29, crashed into this new reality when he tried to drop some pennies in the new fare box on his Route 42 bus last week. The fare box started beeping like a dump truck backing up. "I was surprised," said Kanshi, who lives in the District and works at the World Bank. "I have handfuls of pennies now. I don't know what to do with them."
Buses housed at seven of Metro's 10 garages have been outfitted with the new fare boxes, which still accept bus tokens, dollar bills and coins other than pennies. Metro paid $24 million for the fare boxes, which are designed to capture valuable information about ridership patterns not measured by the old mechanical fare boxes, which date from the 1980s.
The new fare box is part of a larger, regional plan that calls for installation of SmarTrip readers on 16 other bus, commuter rail and subway systems across Maryland, Virginia and the District. The idea, officials say, is to make public transportation so easy and seamless that more people will want to ride.
SmarTrip is a reusable, rechargeable plastic card that automatically deducts fares or parking fees when waved over sensors at fare or parking lot gates at Metro stations. Since its introduction in 1999, the computer chip card has become wildly popular among regular Metro riders. About 430,000 of the SmarTrip cards, which cost $5 each, are in circulation.
Bringing the SmarTrip card to the bus meant kicking off the penny, Metro Treasurer Al Doehring said. "The rail system was always designed to recognize nickels" as the lowest denomination, he said. "We wanted to make the bus system consistent with the rail system."
The old Metrobus fare boxes collected 3.2 million pennies a month, or one half of one percent of the monthly bus revenue, said Chris Cipperly, Metro's assistant treasurer. Metro paid an armored carrier to roll those pennies for deposit in the bank, a task that costs about $35,000 a year, not a significant amount for an agency with a budget in the billions.
Metro tested the penny-free fare boxes for three months on 80 Metrobuses that circulate in Arlington to gauge reaction. "We found that our patrons quickly adjusted, and it wasn't a big issue," Cipperly said.
Those are fighting words to the Americans for Common Cents, the D.C.-based lobbying group that promotes the penny.
"This is just bad for consumers," said Mark Weller, executive director and head penny pusher. He said Americans like the penny, pointing to a 2002 report by the General Accounting Office that showed nearly two-thirds of Americans want the U.S. Mint to continue penny production.
"It's more than an inconvenience," said Weller, who saves pennies with his family until they collect enough to buy a pizza and put them back in circulation. "It's taking away a choice that people should have. It's preventing them from using legal tender. From our point of view, that's a problem."