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.
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.
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