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Second fare hike stresses Metro

Way back in the early spring, the people responsible for Metro's revenue collection envisioned a scenario worth avoiding: The transit authority's steep and complex fare increases would leave many riders confused about how much they were paying. Worse yet, some fare collection equipment would perform poorly just as the new fares kicked in. Same old Metro, the riders would say, charging us a premium while failing to deliver a top notch service.

It was a vision that pretty much resembles the past 72 hours in the train system.

The problem, as the transit staff saw it back in the spring, is that the mechanics of a fare increase -- with all the fare gate, fare box and vending adjustments, the changes in the signs on station kiosks and buses, and the revisions to the online and printed guides -- are always really complicated.

fare_sign.jpg Problem papered over: Metro posted yellow explanation signs and fare update decals on station kiosks. (WMATA photo)

This time, it was more so, because the board and staff were envisioning several relatively exotic adjustments to the rail fares. These would require a new level of sophistication in the programming at the fare gates. The transit staff was moving into uncharted territory.

Staffers kept nudging the Metro board to make its budget balancing decisions quickly so that the necessary changes could be made. They said they needed at least 60 days to get all this set up.

First round, okay
In the end, only a portion of the fare increases were imposed in time for the start of the Metro fiscal year on July 1. Granted, it was a pretty big portion. Metro needed to start making money to recoup the anticipated shortfall of $189 million in its operating budget. It also wanted to provide the big crowds a pleasant ride to and from the Fourth of July festivities, something the transit staff takes a lot of pride in accomplishing.
There were some early glitches, but that first week of the fare hikes went off pretty well.

Second round, problem
Not so this time. First, Metro managers recognized that its software reprogramming for the fare gates would be even more challenging than originally thought -- and they thought it would be really challenging. The particular problem was with the paper Farecards and their magnetic strips, much less sophisticated technology than the SmarTrip cards, with their electronic chips.

The fare gates have to be programmed to withdraw the right amount from the paper Farecards once the complex peak of the peak surcharge is imposed. Metro managers involved in this recommended to Interim General Manager Richard Sarles that they go only half way in launching the 20-cent peak of the peak charge on Monday, and he agreed.

Then a low-tech communication issued created a new problem with another surcharge that was scheduled to start Sunday. Metro recognized that it's new signs on the kiosks, the signs that give the station-to-station fares, reflected the charge for a SmarTrip user but not the new, higher charge for a paper Farecard user. That's no small matter to many riders. Two trips a day will take an extra 50 cents off the paper card. If one of those trips is between 4:30 and 6 p.m., the afternoon peak of the peak, that pushes the daily deduction up to 70 cents.

(If that same person is still riding Metrorail at the end of the month, when Metro expects to fix the programming issues and impose the morning surcharge, that could be 90 cents more a day than the rider was paying last month -- after the first big fare increase.)

So to make sure all those paper card users didn't have to pay surprise visits to the add-value machines in the stations, Metro postponed both the p.m. peak of the peak and the paper card surcharges till Tuesday. Staffers spent Monday pasting up yellow paper signs on the kiosks to explain the SmarTrip/paper card differential. At least they match the color of the "Fare Update" decals that already had been pasted up to explain the p.m. peak of the peak surcharge.

Over the next few weeks, all the kiosk signs will have to be redone to show the paper Farecard charge. That should happen in time for the imposition of the morning version of peak of the peak.

A slower gate?
Then there's the minor irritation that many riders have been reporting: For the past several weeks, they've been finding the fare gates a tad slow to respond to their SmarTrip cards. This overlaps with the period of fare gate reprogramming, which may be a coincidence. Or not. In any case, the fare gate slows are the first experience many riders have after triangulating those three signs meant to explain how much they're now paying for the same old ride.

By Robert Thomson  | August 3, 2010; 6:35 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail  
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Yep...I've definitely noticed the gates opening more slowly for my SmarTrip card. I thought it was just a random the occational gate that closes too fast after I swipe my card, and ends up smashing my hips. That happens only once in awhile, but it's annoying and painful.

Posted by: akchild | August 3, 2010 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Yes, I too have noticed the slowness. the first time was a week or so ago. At first, I thought the gates were malfunctioning when the gate didn't respond (open). I then went to an adjacent gate and by the time i attempted to scan my card at that gage (only to get a "see the manager" message)the gate I had first attempted entry opened up - it took that long (maybe 5 seconds). Thankfully, I was able to go thru my original gate before someone else.
To "akchild": i can empathize with you getting your hips smashed by the gates - used to happen to me a lot when I swiped my card (while following someone else) before that gate closed from someone elses entry - expecting the system to be "smart" enough to remain open for a "train" of swipers. Well, the system is NOT that smart, at least not dependably. I now wait (sometimes for several seconds) for the gate to close from a prior entry before I swipe. Using that technique, I've never been mashed, except for the occasional time when one of the two wings of the gate fails to open.

Posted by: jgaines_60 | August 3, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Nice to see Metro has not been running rush service at 9 am the last two days. Of course, they promise no service cutbacks, but that's the first thing they wring.

Posted by: MACCHAMPS04 | August 3, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

An approach I have been advocating since 2006 is to really, really encourage new media. When Chicago introduced their version of the smart trip card, they created a $2 cash fare and a $1 smart media fare. a50% discount on a rider's trip cost is a very good inventive. If WMATA would take bold steps to encourage Smart Trip use, the problem with the fare gate programming would all but be eliminated. All we have from WMATA is now a 25 cent surcharge for rail trips without smart media. This is a wimpy start as a way to encourage appropriate behavior.

Posted by: ln569 | August 3, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

The paper card hike actually was in effect on Sunday, contrary to what this story says. While trying to ride the red line from China town late Sunday night, I put $1.60 on a paper ticket according to the kiosk's prices. However, the machine rejected my ticket and a station manager tried to explain Metro's new inane pricing guidelines. She, however, didnt even understand them and gave me wrong info so I had to add money 2 more times before being able to pass through. This was after the machine ate $2 and the manager said there was nothing she could do about it. I ended up paying almost $4 to wait 13 minutes for a train and ride 2 stops. DC's Metro system is the antonym of efficiency and all these fare hikes with diminishing service have encouraged me to use my car instead.

Posted by: lmtexasranger | August 3, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I'm a bit worried about the peak of the peak. I think it may have ignored my transfer from the bus to the train on the way home from work. Normally it's $1.50 bus and then my normal $3.60 rail fare becomes $3.10 because of the $.50 transfer discount. However, I think when I exited the train tonight it read $3.80 which is the normal fare plus the $.20 peak of the peak. It should have been $3.30, but it looks like it may have ignored the transfer. I'm waiting for the usage history to show up on the SmarTrip website before I can be sure though.

Posted by: inlogan | August 3, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone know why Metro doesn't just end the paper farecard system and make everybody buy SmarTrip cards? I understand the tourists wouldn't like it, but would $5 (or under the fare changes, $2.50, right?) really stop them from using the system to get around DC, or cause them to cancel their trips?

Posted by: gewaldron | August 3, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Most of the gates at Foggy Bottom were not working tonight at about 5:30. Metro police were holding people at the top of the escalators because the area outside the gates was fully packed. When I went back through about 7:30 only one of the gates that's on what's normally the in side of the station was working. I have not been a Metro basher before, but it's getting pretty bad out there.

Posted by: marathoner | August 3, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

Foggy Bottom sucks ass.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 4, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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