Metro announced yesterday it is rushing the production of tens of thousands of SmarTrip cards and will keep on selling them despite dwindling supplies, reversing a decision the transit agency made Thursday.
Customers will be able to purchase the rechargeable, plastic fare cards at vending machines in more than 30 Metro stations, at Metro sales offices and at some stores. The sale of cards online remains suspended.
Metro officials decided to continue selling the SmarTrip cards until supplies are depleted because they felt that their own aggressive marketing of the cards obliged them to keep the cards available, said Steven Taubenkibel, a Metro spokesman.
"Given that this has been such a huge turnaround, getting people to buy the cards and then telling people we weren't going to sell them . . . the decision has basically been that we're going to go ahead," Taubenkibel said. "We're going to try to make this as customer-friendly as possible in trying to make as many of these cards available as possible."
Transit officials also hope that 72,000 cards scheduled to be delivered in three shipments over the next month arrive sooner than expected, Taubenkibel said. Yesterday, the supplier of the cards, Giesecke & Devrient, agreed to temporarily focus solely on producing SmarTrip cards for Metro, he said.
The transit system has fewer than 16,000 cards in its inventory. The supply might last until new shipments arrive, but it is a "touch-and-go process," Taubenkibel said.
Metro will hold onto a few thousand SmarTrip cards to replace lost or defective cards, he said.
Metro employees also will keep a close watch on supplies in vending machines and will redistribute cards from machines with a larger stock to those where demand is higher. If a machine runs out of cards, a station employee will place a sign on it to let customers know, Taubenkibel said.
Since June 28, when the transit agency installed SmarTrip vending machines at 33 stations and began requiring drivers who park at Metro lots to pay for parking with them, Metro has sold 4,000 cards a day -- 15 times as many as it sold on a typical day before the changes.
Metro officials attributed the run on the cards to its promotion of the SmarTrip system, as well as to unexpected increases in ridership. Metro views the SmarTrip card program as the centerpiece of a gradual transition to a cash-free system.
When it introduced the SmarTrip card in 1999, Metro was the first transit system in the nation to offer a rechargeable electronic fare card that can be loaded with value up to $200. The cards can be used to pay for travel on the subway and many Metro buses, as well as for parking in the Metro garages and lots.
Starting Monday, Metro also will dispatch additional employees to stations with parking lots -- the highest-volume stations -- to assist customers in the event that SmarTrip vending machines there run out of cards.
If that happens, anyone who parks in a Metro lot and does not have a SmarTrip card must purchase a paper fare card for the exact amount of the parking fee, usually $3.75.
"They will be there to explain the situation in terms of what is happening with the reduction in SmarTrip cards and why this has happened," Taubenkibel said.
Transit officials also decided yesterday to add at least three customer service representatives to a call center in Reston, where 10 agents currently answer customer calls about SmarTrip cards. Four other agents who respond to e-mails and process damaged cards may also handle some calls, said Murray Bond, director of SmarTrip operations for Metro.
Some Metro customers who have called the SmarTrip service line have complained about poor customer service and wait times of as much as an hour. The agents have been overwhelmed by calls, Taubenkibel said. Nevertheless, they have been told to "speed up responses," Taubenkibel said.
"We realize that there have been some unacceptable call times," he said. "And it's not how we do business."
Bond said the transit system also is streamlining the automated menu that greets callers to the SmarTrip help line so that customers are more quickly connected to the department that can best help them.
To secure a steady supply of cards, Bond said, Metro has contacted transit systems in Los Angeles and Chicago, the only other systems in the country that use electronic cards similar to SmarTrip, to see if they would be willing to sell some of their inventory. But those cards might not be compatible with Metro's SmarTrip system, he said.