CVS stores will stop selling SmarTrip cards this month, discontinuing a program that also allows Washington area commuters — many of them low-income bus riders — to reload their fare cards.
Taking away the CVS option to purchase and reload value on the cards could have a significant impact on low-income and minority residents who travel only by bus and never go through a Metro station equipped with fare machines.
Metro riders make as many as a half-million SmarTrip purchases and reload transactions each year at the region’s more than 150 CVS locations, according to Metro. The transit agency said it hopes CVS will reconsider its decision to end the decade-old partnership.
“We are surprised and disappointed with CVS Health’s decision to no longer offer SmarTrip sales, a decision that will negatively affect thousands of low-income bus customers across the region,” Metro said in a statement.
“We have appealed to the highest levels of CVS management, asking that they reconsider their decision, and are prepared to work with CVS to address any concerns they may have,” the transit agency said.
In a May 1 letter to Metro, the drugstore giant said it is terminating the agreement it has had with the transit agency since December 2008, effective June 1, and transitioning to return all the transit card inventory. The decision was reached after months of failed negotiations, according to the letter signed by Maly Bernstein, the retailer’s vice president of beauty and personal care.
Neither Metro nor CVS would detail the negotiations or why they failed.
“We would like to thank you for your engagement over the last few months as we worked through possible solutions to continue this program at CVS and hope that in the future you will engage us on an updated program that CVS will be able to participate in,” Bernstein said in the letter.
A CVS Health spokeswoman declined to discuss the details of the decision, sending only a statement.
“CVS Pharmacy will no longer participate in the SmarTrip program after May 31st due to ongoing operational issues that could not be resolved satisfactorily,” CVS Health spokeswoman Stephanie Cunha said in the statement. “We have formally notified WMATA of this decision and we apologize to customers for any inconvenience.”
In a response letter dated May 8, Metro said it tried to salvage the relationship, addressing “administrative issues” through a number of steps, including revising the existing contract, replacing outdated SmarTrip machines available to CVS associates, marketing the stores that sell the cards, and replacing $10 SmarTrip cards with cards with no value to reduce the cost risk for CVS.
“Your service is indispensable for transit-dependent customers who have no bank accounts or credit cards, and therefore, cannot purchase Metro fares online,” Metro’s assistant general manager Lynn Bowersox and chief financial officer Dennis Anosike wrote in the letter.
“By terminating the agreement, the number of retail locations where SmarTrip cards can be purchased and reloaded will be reduced by more than 60 percent,” they said.
The transit cards are also available at Giant Food stores, commuter stores, universities and the Metro sales office at Metro Center. CVS has three times as many stores in the program as Giant.
Transit officials have long sought such partnerships to increase the number of retail locations where reloading and purchase of SmarTrip cards is available, especially in areas of the region such as Southeast D.C. and Prince George’s County where bus stops are not close to Metro stations.
Metro is asking CVS to at least maintain the top 20 stores where SmarTrip sales are highest. The top stores are widely spread out across the region, including in areas with high concentrations of immigrants and minorities, such as Langley Park and Wheaton in Maryland, Columbia Heights and Petworth in the District and Seven Corners and Arlington Mill in Virginia.
Reducing the number of locations where riders can buy or reload fare cards could impede Metro’s plans to move to a “cashless” payment system for its buses. The transit agency is planning a pilot on one route this summer to test running buses without the “add value” option on board as a way to eliminate dwelling times at bus stops.
Two years ago when the transit agency entertained going cashless on all its buses, concerns arose about low-income riders who lacked access to locations to load their cards. Unless the agency adds additional retail outlets or other options, including off-board loading kiosks, the change could arise to a civil rights violation.
Metro Board member Malcolm Augustine said he is “deeply concerned” with CVS’s decision, noting that the retailer has a wide reach in the region. Without CVS, people who use cash will have significantly fewer places to reload their SmarTrip cards.
“In some ways, it can really reduce the accessibility of public transportation for people,” said Augustine, who represents Prince George’s County. “Does it impact minorities and low income? Absolutely. There is no question about that and that is a serious issue.”
Augustine said he didn’t know details about the negotiations between CVS and Metro, or why they fell apart.
“I would urge management to do everything possible to salvage the relationship,” he said.