Metro and CVS Health agreed Monday to save a decade-old partnership and continue the sales of SmarTrip cards in the Washington region’s 200 CVS stores, preserving a service used by thousands of commuters — many of them bus riders.
Earlier this month, CVS warned Metro that it planned to discontinue the SmarTrip sales and the service that allows area commuters to reload their fare cards at its stores. CVS said last week that its decision was prompted by Metro’s slow response to repairing faulty SmarTrip equipment at its stores and was made after months of negotiations that went sour.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said he met with CVS executives early Monday to settle the differences and reached an agreement that would allow the service to continue.
“We are back in business,” Evans (D-Ward 2) said in an interview. “I just met with officials from CVS and worked out any problems that we had between Metro and CVS. They have agreed to continue the service as it is.”
Metro has committed to improve its response time to fix faulty equipment and work with the retailer to make Metro equipment compatible with the CVS system to allow for seamless transactions and reduce financial risks for the drugstore chain. Metro will also provide SmarTrip cards with no value to reduce the risk of losses caused by thefts. Metro has for years provided CVS an inventory of $10 fare cards, but Evans said that some were being stolen or disappeared and that CVS was being charged for them.
CVS confirmed plans to continue offering the fare card services at its stores, saying in a statement that it will not change the number of CVS Pharmacy locations where SmarTrip cards are available.
The decision comes days after the drug store giant said it would stop selling SmarTrip cards on May 31 because of challenges with Metro, including operational issues that caused disruption to customer service in the stores. Chiefly, the company cited “unsustainably slow response” to repair equipment that frequently malfunctions.
“We look forward to working with (Metro) in its implementation of the service enhancements that were agreed to so that CVS can continue providing SmarTrip card services in our stores,” CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said via email. He said Monday’s meeting with Evans was “productive” and the company and Metro are now working out the details of a formal agreement.
The 10 a.m. meeting at Evans’s D.C. Council office was with Michael Ayotte, vice president of state and local government affairs at CVS; Roger Francis, a division vice president; and lawyer Rod Woodson of Holland & Knight. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld joined by conference call.
Evans said Woodson reached out to him last week after reading a report in The Washington Post on the CVS-Metro breakup and scheduled a meeting to resolve their differences.
“CVS is great, and I am happy to keep the relationship with them,” Evans said.
Metro has agreed to replace all the machines available to CVS associates for use of reloading cards. More important, Evans said, Metro will ensure that the machines are serviced in a timely fashion.
“There were concerns that the machines would break and Metro would take days or weeks to respond. We are not going to let that happen anymore. Paul and I will personally monitor that to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Evans said.
He said Metro offered to pay CVS a per-transaction fee to address concerns about the administrative cost of the program. But CVS declined to accept a payment, agreeing to continue to provide the service without making any revenue from it.
Metro last week had urged CVS to reconsider its decision to end the decade-old partnership, saying that taking away the CVS option to buy and reload value on the cards would have a disproportionate effect on low-income and minority riders, many of whom 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 CVS locations.
Transit riders and advocates had also urged the two parties to reconcile their differences and maintain the service. Although Metro riders have the choice to add cash to their fare cards aboard buses, many say they prefer to do it at CVS stores, where they can also buy more-affordable weekly passes unavailable for sale on the bus. Adding value to SmarTrip cards aboard the bus also is difficult during busy commutes and holds the buses longer at bus stops.
SmarTrip cards are also available at Giant Food stores, commuter stores, college campuses and the Metro sales office at Metro Center. But CVS is by far the largest retailer of the fare cards; it has three times as many stores in the program as Giant.