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SmarTrip plans face obstacles

Michael Bolden

Metro's plan to reduce the price of SmarTrip cards by half has encountered major obstacles -- one being that people could use the cheaper cards to take advantage of the system, and the other that the agency risks running out of the SmarTrip cards altogether, Metro officials said on Thursday.

The revelations at a meeting of a board of directors committee drew exasperation from several board members, who eventually decided to halt the discussion and ask Metro's staff to return at the end of the month with better solutions.

"This is embarrassing," said board member Jim Graham, a Ward 1 D.C. council member. "I think we should move off this agenda item. With every passing minute it looks worse."

Metro had planned to cut the price of SmarTrip cards from $5 to $2.50, to encourage use of the cards at a time when the transit agency is also providing discounts of 20 cents on bus trips and 25 cents on rail trips for those who use the electronic fare cards for their travels..

Then Metro staff grew concerned that some riders would take advantage of the cheaper SmarTrip cards, which allow customers to exit the system once with a negative balance, by buying cards at $2.50 and using them for more expensive trips.

Given that rail trips can cost up to $5.20 and bus trips as much as $6, Metro officials calculated that the lost revenue from customers "gaming the system" could reach as high as $1 million a m onth.

"The more money they could make off it, the more likely they'd be to do it," said Steve Holland, Metro's director of customer service, sales, and fare media services.

Making the problem worse, SmarTrip cards, which have been made by only one company, are no longer going to be manufactured, Metro officials said. Metro has an estimated two-year inventory, but that could rapidly dwindle if customers purchased them in higher numbers.

"You have to watch what you do or you will end up with no cards," board Chairman Peter Benjamin said.

Metro's initial solution was to propose eliminating the negative balance option, forcing customers to add money to the cards at cash-only machines to be able to exit the system. That in turn caused an uproar from riders, who envisioned being trapped in the system without the right change or facing congestion at exit machines.

At today's board meeting, staff discussed several other options -- none of board members perceived as ideal.

"This whole thing is now charging down the line base on an original decision that was not well informed," Benjamin said.

-- Ann Scott Tyson

By Michael Bolden  | September 16, 2010; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  Ann Scott Tyson, Metro  
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This is a firable level of incompetence in most industries.

Posted by: LouLewis | September 16, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

So what exactly is Metro planning to do once its two-year inventory of cards is gone? Will someone else start making them or will they need to change hardware and get some other type of card in people's hands? This is the kind of lack of foresight that gets Metro into all kinds of trouble...

Posted by: ValleyCaps | September 16, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Look. This isn't hard. Take a SmartTrip machine at each station and move it from outside to inside the gates. Then people can pay with a credit card inside the system. As long as you can pay with a credit card inside the system, not being able to run a negative balance becomes almost a non-issue.

And Metro only has a two-year supply of SmartTrip cards which will no longer be manufactured? Wow. This kinda thing only happens to WMATA. Hopefully there is compatible technology available.

Posted by: ghokee | September 16, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

If Smartrip is going obsolete (already is a little) Why don't we use Chicago or New York's system? The Chicago Card Plus or NYC MetroCard EasyPayExpress links to your credit card and it reloads your account in specified amounts as you need it so you don't worry about running out of money, like an EzPass. Of course NYC also gives you a little discount too, but I wouldn't expect that from WMATA. And the flat fares are easier to navigate, but I wouldn't expect WMATA to let the suburban commuters off the hook like that (maybe rightfully so) I'd actually be okay with paying my $5 for the card if it turned out to actually be convenient for me to use. SmartTrip is just sad.

Posted by: BringThePain | September 16, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Metro is being held hostage by the company who produces the cards, Cubic Transportation System (CTS). Metro can't get cards from any other company because CTS won't allow another company's card to be used on their hardware. Their hardware you say. All fare machines and gates are run by software wholly owned by CTS. Believe it or not, after thirty plus years CTS still owns the software on the fare machines and back office systems and will noit allow any other software to be run on their system.

Posted by: Jimof1913 | September 16, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

This is disturbing. Metro's bungling continues. Incompetence can be traced from the top all the way down to the bottom.

As a public service agency, you should be ashamed, WMATA.

Posted by: ericroks | September 16, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

This is just like the federal stimulus being used to create a new energy economy, with funds available to develop wind power and solar PV panels. It's always something to "create jobs."

I will not buy another SmarTrip card knowing that my funds are going into a fund that will have to purchase a whole new system in probably less than 2 years. Built-in obsolescence. What a concept.

Posted by: Xlnt | September 16, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Wow. Just when you think Metro's incompetence can't get worse ...

Posted by: RosslynVA | September 16, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe how incompetent this system is. I'm paying $8.80 a day for this? Exactly how much are these people paid? I'm sick of paing exorbitant fees for a poorly run system. Now I find I will also be paying more even when I don't ride the Metro when the double the fees on the Dulles Toll road. All of this money where does it go? Defintely not to improving the system or making it safer. Metro like much in this city is a joke.

Posted by: lucl74 | September 16, 2010 8:17 PM | Report abuse

I'll cut Metro some slack for the proprietary system. They were one of the first transit systems in the country (if not the first) to move to a system like SmarTrip. What is inexcusable is knowing that the technology is going to be obsolete in less than two years and not planning for it.

The whole fare system is outdated as evidenced by all the problems that have come to light recently and how every time they do anything to it the system slows down further. This will be a major undertaking and planning for the replacement should be well under way.

Posted by: Razor04 | September 16, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

There's a glaring hole (unless something has changed) in this stupid argument. When I buy a new Smartrip card today for $5, it has a 0 value. So why would buying a Smartrip for $2.50 have a $2.50 value on the card? If my balance is below the base fare, it doesn't let me in; a card with 0 is below the base fare.

Posted by: mcrochip | September 17, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

"When I buy a new Smartrip card today for $5, it has a 0 value."

At least at metro stations, if you buy a SmarTrip card today, they cost $10 and come with $5 in fare on them ($5 for the card itself and $5 fare = $10 total).

I'm pretty sure they plan to keep it this way, but they will cost $5 ($2.50 for the card itself and $2.50 fare = $5 total).

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | September 17, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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