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New fare gates will require SmarTrip upgrade for some longtime commuters returning to Metro

Tens of thousands of riders with older cards will not be able to use Metro fare gates starting next month

Metro is trying to notify holders of SmarTrip cards issued before 2012 that their cards will no longer work on new fare gates at most stations starting March 1. Signage at the Petworth-Georgia Avenue Metro station is seen in early February. (Justin George/The Washington Post)
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Thousands of longtime commuters plotting their first returns to the office since the pandemic began could face an unwelcome surprise when trying to enter Metro’s fare gates.

That SmarTrip card — forgotten and untouched over the past two years — might not work.

Starting March 1, fare cards issued before 2012 will not function throughout the transit system because Metro upgraded fare gates at most stations that don’t sync with older cards. The transit agency for nearly a year has tried to notify owners of the older cards, but few have switched as ridership hovers at historically low levels.

Metro said about 400,000 older SmarTrip cards were active before the pandemic. As of early this month, transit agency figures show about 8 percent of those had been converted.

The new fare gates are one of several technological improvements Metro made during the pandemic to modernize the nearly 50-year-old rail system. But with rail ridership lingering at 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and more workers expected to commute in the coming weeks, returning riders who already will face reduced service levels could be in for a frustrating start to their journey.

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The transit agency has placed billboards on buses and erected signs at stations that read “say farewell” to old SmarTrip cards. It also has sent 150,000 emails to registered cardholders about the change.

Some riders who have upgraded said the process — coming alongside a drop in omicron cases and expected rise in in-person work — could turn riders off just as they are returning to Metro.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of surprised people out there,” said longtime rider Edward Russell, who writes about airlines for transportation publications. “I think there’s going to be a lot of surprise, and it would be great if there was just an easier process to do this.”

The card switch-over deadline comes as Metro continues to operate at reduced service levels, which has created longer waits since mid-October, when a federal investigation into a derailment uncovered a safety defect that affects 60 percent of Metro’s rail car fleet. Those cars, part of Metro’s 7000 series, were pulled from service and won’t return before April.

Russell, who transferred his SmarTrip account to a mobile card on his phone, said he ran into problems last month when he took his son for a train ride. The boy excitedly tried to use an older card Russell had given him, but it didn’t work.

The new fare gates have been installed at nearly half of Metro’s stations. Transit officials said the gates don’t require contact with fare cards, give station managers instant access to fare gate data and are better equipped to work with cellphones, able to validate payments and flash account balances more quickly.

About one-third of stations have only the new fare gates. Most stations have a sprinkling of older fare gates that allow for passengers with older cards to ride, but that will end next month, when those cards will stop working at stations, buses and Metro parking lots.

Most fare-card vending machines have stopped accepting older cards for adding money. The transit agency has also stopped letting riders reload older cards online, funneling riders to directions on obtaining a new card.

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Metro has about 2.6 million SmarTrip cards in circulation, said transit agency spokeswoman Sherri Ly. About 400,000 active older cards were in use before the pandemic, a number that had fallen to about 85,000 at the end of last year, a period corresponding with a drop in pandemic-era ridership.

Fewer than 33,000 of the older cards — about 1 in every 12 that were active before the pandemic — had been converted as of early this month, Ly said.

Cardholders can tell if their SmarTrip card is a newer version by checking for the numbers “0167″ on the back, which indicates it does not need to be replaced.

“We encourage people that may not have returned to offices full-time yet, or that have an old SmarTrip card they use for occasional trips to events or activities, to check their cards now,” Ly said.

Despite the possible fare card nuisance, the fare gates are one of several technological advances Metro rolled out during the pandemic. Others include mobile fare cards, a mobile app, cellular service extended through the transit system, and new platform features that include LED lights, larger digital screens and cellphone charging ports.

Marie Fritz, a university professor in D.C., mailed her card in for a replacement and said it took about three weeks for the new card to arrive. She noticed her old card stopped working at new fare gates over the summer. The inconvenience prompted her to take Metrobus more often until she could find the time to replace her card.

She said she would have done it sooner if she could have replaced it at a station.

“I think it would be probably ideal to just have some mechanism to be able to switch it over at a station,” she said.

Free replacement cards are available at the transit agency’s Metro Center sales office, through the mail, at hundreds of Washington-area businesses or by transferring account balances to a mobile card. More information is available at