Metrobus and three smaller bus systems in the region ran out of paper transfers yesterday and resorted to using makeshift transfers that are undated and can be used repeatedly by passengers.
A Metro spokesman blamed the problem on the Pennsylvania printing company that has supplied Metro with paper bus transfers for 20 years. Globe Ticket and Label Co. has been struggling with equipment problems, said Steven Taubenkibel, a Metro spokesman.
The company's president promised Metro late yesterday that he was rushing a two-day supply of transfers to Washington. But a Metro spokeswoman said late last night that they were not expected to arrive until early today or go into use before tomorrow.
The regular transfers, which are printed on small rectangular pieces of newsprint, allow Metrobus riders to switch buses for free within a two-hour window.
They are enormously popular; Metrobus drivers hand out about 319,000 transfers each day on a bus system that carries 456,196 riders on an average weekday. That means about 70 percent of Metrobus riders use transfers each day.
The other bus systems affected by the transfer shortage are the DASH system in Alexandria, the CUE system in Fairfax County and The Bus in Prince George's County. Together, those systems carry about 20,000 riders daily.
"It's a big problem," said Vasilios Birlidis, a spokesman for DASH, which distributes about 6,200 transfers a day to its 13,000 riders. "Allowing people to transfer between DASH and Metrobus is a big deal. . . . The consumer doesn't look at it like, 'Oh, the printer messed up.' They look at it as, 'The transit system messed up.' "
The Globe Ticket employee who handles the Metro contract did not return telephone or e-mail messages yesterday.
Metro pays Globe Ticket $200,000 each year for paper transfers. The company ships a 60-day supply to the agency about a week before the previous supply runs out, Taubenkibel said.
When the shipment that was due Nov. 21 did not materialize, Metro managers called Globe Ticket, he said.
The supplier cited equipment trouble and asked whether it could send a 30-day supply by Nov. 23, Taubenkibel said. That shipment didn't arrive either, he said.
By Monday night, Metro had run out of transfers and decided that drivers yesterday would hand out old, stockpiled "emergency transfers" that lack the date stamp and other controls found on the regular ones.
Metro gave the suburban companies some of the transfers, so they have enough for about two more days.
Taubenkibel said Metro has no estimate of how much it might have lost in fares by anyone abusing the undated emergency vouchers.
The agency will not withhold payment or penalize Globe Ticket, because Metro's contract with the printer does not allow it, Taubenkibel said.
"I'm sure that's something we will reexamine when the next contract is discussed," he said.
Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.