Metro’s lone sales office for conducting various in-person transactions is closing at the end of the month, the latest change as the transit industry increasingly moves toward digital services amid a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.
While in-person support for ticketing and fare card purchases will exist at Metro stations and commuter stores, the closure comes as Metro has increased virtual services and mobile payment options. The move is expected to reduce Metro’s expenses at a time when the transit agency is struggling to return to pre-pandemic ridership, a decline that has meant a significant loss in fare revenue.
The sales office has provided support to help riders transfer balances, add fare money and replace lost cards, although most customers use it to purchase reduced-fare passes, such as those for seniors and people with disabilities. Services offered through the office will be available through other channels, such as commuter stores, fare-vending machines at stations, online or at Metro’s new Transit Accessibility Center.
Barb Fraze, 65, came to the sales office on a recent afternoon to get a senior SmarTrip card and transfer balances during her lunch break. She said she hopes to avoid making the longer trek to Metro’s accessibility center at L’Enfant Plaza.
Fraze, who said she considers herself “fairly tech-savvy,” said she plans to stick with Metro’s physical ticketing system. But after trying to transfer balances to her new SmarTrip card at the sales office, she was eventually told she needed to complete the transaction online.
“I just think that there are people who will be like, ‘How do I do this?’” said Fraze, who said she was comforted by the option of calling Metro’s customer service for support. “I think it’s going to be a struggle for some people who are not tech-savvy.”
Metro’s board approved the closure as part of its fiscal 2023 budget. A budget proposal cited “a decreasing demand for in-person purchases of fare media products and services as more customers use mobile fare media and internet sales.”
The decision comes as lower ridership is taking a toll on Metro’s finances.
The agency previously estimated it will face a budget gap of a half-billion dollars beginning next summer — before it received a federal grant and notched recent ridership increases — while Metro is also bracing for a shortfall in its capital projects budget. Transit officials did not respond to a request for comment about how much money the closure would save annually.
Metro shuttered most of its in-person sales offices in November 2016, citing a nearly $300 million budget gap and declining usage. At the time, the four offices that closed each handled fewer than 200 interactions daily.
When the sales office relocated from Metro’s headquarters in 2018 to its location at Metro Center, its hours were expanded from 8 a.m. through 6 p.m. on weekdays. Since then, those hours have been cut to 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
While ridership is on the rise and has surpassed the transit agency’s initial pandemic-era goals for the fiscal year, the increase is probably not enough for a financial recovery. About $2.4 billion in federal money helped Metro to avoid cutting service earlier in the pandemic, but that aid will begin to run out next summer. Transit officials have said that unless ridership dramatically improves, Metro might have to decrease service without other revenue streams.
Last month, 85 percent of Metrorail trips were paid with physical SmarTrip cards, while 15 percent were paid with mobile devices, said Metro spokesperson Ian Jannetta. Like other transit agencies, Metro has no plans to phase out physical forms of payment.
The transit agency has encouraged customers to sign up for mobile payment options, including adding their SmarTrip card to Apple Wallet or Google Pay and downloading the SmarTrip app. Many transit systems around the country have joined in on touchless payment systems, which have become more popular during the pandemic.
Every New York subway station offers touchless card readers, allowing riders to tap their phone or credit card to an electronic reader. The system will cease offering its paper ticket by 2024. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system accelerated its transition from paper tickets to contactless cards in 2020 amid coronavirus concerns.
At Metro, that evolution began to advance after it ended paper fare cards in 2016 — the same year it canceled plans for a mobile payment system, citing a lack of interest. After rapid growth in smartphone use, Metro announced new plans to launch a mobile payment system in 2019.
Those options were ultimately launched during the pandemic in September 2020, when Metro announced riders could use Apple Pay and a new mobile app to use a virtual SmarTrip card. Android users were able to start paying virtually in June 2021.
Despite the growing popularity of mobile and touchless systems, many Metro riders who use the sales office said they are resistant to upending their routines. Most customers who visit the location are seniors looking for SmarTrip customer service, which is now offered at L’Enfant Plaza, Jannetta said.
According to Metro budget documents, the proposed closure required a Title VI equity analysis by the Federal Transit Administration. The analysis determined the closure would not disproportionately affect minority or low-income riders but did not assess its effects on senior riders.
Addie Brinkley, 68, came to the sales office for the first time earlier this month to replace a lost fare card. She said she plans to continue using Metro’s physical payment system, adding that she prefers the security and simplicity of reloading money at ticketing kiosks.
She said she’s not likely to make a switch to mobile payments until she takes computer classes at an adult education charter school.
“I wouldn’t know how to use a computer,” Brinkley said. “I’m old-school.”