JIM GRAHAM, a Metro Board member from the District, had it almost right the other day when he said Metro was "about to do the unthinkable." He'd have been closer to the mark had he said "the unthinking." Surely thought was scarce when the transit system devised a plan to prompt thousands of rail riders to start using high-tech SmarTrip cards and then didn't bother to procure enough cards to satisfy the surge in demand. The result: Less than a month after switching to a cashless system at its many parking lots and garages, Metro is running out of the SmarTrip cards it compelled many riders to buy. After first announcing that sales of the rechargeable plastic fare cards would be suspended until September -- this is what Mr. Graham termed "unthinkable" -- Metro officials said Friday that sales would in fact continue, but that supplies would spotty and unreliable all summer. As Casey Stengel once put it, "Can't anybody here play this game?"
Rarely has a Metro annoyance been so foreseeable and avoidable -- and so directly the consequence of Metro officials' own actions. After considerable study and advance publicity, Metro began requiring the use of SmarTrip cards at its parking lots and garages on June 28. That followed the installation of SmarTrip fare boxes on more than 1,000 buses, and the placement of SmarTrip vending machines in 33 stations. Anyone with an abacus should have been able to forecast that SmarTrip card sales would skyrocket, which they did; what had been a month's supply of cards before June 28 suddenly became a two-day supply. But somehow, Metro was caught flat-footed. "It turns out the crystal ball was cracked. It was foggy," said Richard A. White, Metro's chief executive. Or nonexistent.
The impression of neglect is reinforced by the news, reported by The Post's Lyndsey Layton and Karin Brulliard, that at least one senior Metro manager warned months ago of a shortage of cards and urged that more be purchased -- only to be ignored. Now it's probably too late for a quick fix. Metro is pleading with the lone manufacturer of the cards to rush deliveries, but acknowledges that supplies will be hit-and-miss for weeks. Cards may run out Wednesday, then be replenished a few days later; officials are not sure. Meanwhile, Metro will have to hire 48 additional parking attendants to handle paper fare card transactions at lots and garages, at a weekly cost of $34,000. The paper fare cards' value will have to match the exact amount of the parking fee, meaning more hassles for riders.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), "disturbed" at Metro's miscalculation, said a congressional inquiry is probable. Heads may roll, but many drivers who park in Metro lots probably won't -- they'll be stuck in line, wilting in the midsummer heat, wishing Metro's bureaucrats were as smart as SmarTrip cards.