The day after Thanksgiving brought two SmarTrip-related announcements for Metro riders, many of whom are probably taking a reprieve from the stresses of commuting to spend time with family this weekend.
One was an addition to a popular fare pass program, which is likely to be welcomed, while another development would surely pose a hassle for scores of riders beginning in the new year. Metro will soon stop allowing negative balances on SmarTrip cards amid its push to enforce its fares, as the agency cracks down on fare evaders.
While not technically fare evasion, negative balances have cost Metro an estimated $25 million in 17 years. Fare evaders have cost the system $25 million per year in lost revenue.
Nonetheless, the cash-strapped agency said, no amount of lost revenue is too small to recover. Metro estimates it will save $1 million per year by outlawing negative balances.
“In an environment where every dollar counts, we are taking a common-sense approach to ensure that Metro is properly collecting the value of the transportation it provides in order to reduce the demand on Metro customers and the region for additional funding,” Metro Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike said in a statement.
Metro will begin enforcing the rule Jan. 8.
SmarTrip cards allow riders to take one trip resulting in a negative balance — meaning a rider taking a $3.25 trip could exit the system with a negative-25-cent balance if they have only $3 loaded on their SmarTrip card, according to Metro. But that will no longer be the case beginning next year, the agency said, because the fare gates won’t open for riders with insufficient funds on their SmarTrip cards. Those riders will instead be directed to exit fare machines.
And bus riders who don’t have the $2 fare loaded on their SmarTrip cards will be met with a buzz at the farebox, the agency said.
Metro reminded riders that exit fare machines accept cash and coins only, unlike the fare-vending machines in the front of stations, some of which accept credit cards.
The agency has no plans to equip exit fare machines with credit card technology, despite the likelihood that more riders will turn to the machines beginning in January.
However, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said, “if a customer only has a debit or credit card, the station manager will allow access to a machine on the opposite side of the fare gates.”
“We anticipate that our customers will quickly adapt to the new rule just as they did in 2013 when we enacted the $1.50 negative limit for Metrorail trips,” she said. At that time, according to Metro, the number of exit-fare transactions increased slightly the week the change was enacted, but quickly returned to normal levels.
Beyond day-to-day users, riders with preloaded passes on their SmarTrip cards will not be permitted to enter the system if they have a negative balance on their card, including the SelectPass, daily and weekly passes and student passes.
In a separate move Friday, Metro announced the expansion of the SelectPass program, which allows riders to prepay for a month of unlimited travel at a certain price ceiling and below. The flexible monthly pass will now be available at every price point from $2 to $6, with a month of unlimited travel costing as much as 18 round trip commutes. The pass was previously available at price points from $2.25 to $4 per trip, and at the system’s then-$5.90 ceiling. (The max fare increased to $6 beginning in July.)
According to Metro’s data, SelectPass trips now account for 7 percent of rail ridership. Riders loaded more than 6,500 SelectPasses onto SmarTrip cards in October, accounting for $800,000 in sales, Ly said.
This post has been updated.