Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Share Stories  |  Traffic  |  Columns  |  Q&A     |  Get Gridlock:    Twitter |    Facebook  |     RSS   |  phone Alerts

Metro Needs to Know Results of Card Giveaway

Last winter, amid concerns about the impact of bus fare increases and the eventual elimination of paper transfers, the transit authority decided to give 50,000 SmarTrip cards to government social service agencies, which would in turn hand them out to local social service groups that people in need.

As the Metro board of directors looked ahead last week to the Jan. 4 end of the paper transfers, it decided to give out another 50,000 cards to the agencies. The cards have a value of $5 each. [See second item in Lena Sun's transit notebook.]

The giveaway is a good idea. I joined many others in saying so last winter. But Metro needs to know that those cards are getting to the intended recipients. And so far, it doesn't.

The intended recipients include low-income people who take at least two buses to get to work. Many have paid the first fares with tokens, distributed to them as charitable gifts. They could show paper transfers to the drivers of the second or third buses. When the paper transfers go away, so does the second or third free ride, unless the traveler has a SmarTrip card.

So giving out $500,000 worth of free cards to ease this transition is a worthwhile use of public money. (By contrast, the federal financial bailout is providing vastly greater sums to stuff the Christmas stockings of un-needy bankers.)

But same Washington area taxpayers who will be asked to kick in more to finance our transit system have a right to know that the SmarTrip cards are getting to the right people. Otherwise, the do-good mission becomes a half-million-dollar government giveaway with no accountability.

The transit authority knows that the first 50,000 cards were distributed quickly to the government social service agencies. It also knows that the agencies still have thousands of them. The rest were handed out, but Metro doesn't know exactly who got them. That lack of clarity was apparent to the board when it voted last week to give away the new batch of 50,000.

Transit managers could not -- and should not -- put themselves in the business of deciding which individuals really need the free cards. It made sense to reach out to social service agencies to determine that. The agencies would bear a burden if they have failed to give out the cards, or give them out properly.

Still, in this public giveaway program, Metro is the giver-awayer. It's Metro money, and Metro needs to be accountable for it.

[We'll have an online discussion at 1 p.m. today to chat about any local transportation issue that's on your mind, whether it's what policy should govern a transportation stimulus package or what route you should take for the holidays. Use this link if you'd like to submit a question or comment in advance.]

By Robert Thomson  |  December 22, 2008; 8:14 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Drive Carefully on a Wet, Foggy Getaway Day
Next: Delays on I-270 SB After Tractor-Trailer Accident


As a taxpayer, what I really want to know is why the heck it's impossible to add value to a SmarTrip card online. I mean, really, what century is this?

Seems more like a DumbTrip card to me.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 22, 2008 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Can't Metro track the cards by serial number to determine whether they've been used at least once? (They can tell me when I last used my card and link my card to the serial number on it if I lose it).

If not, can't Metro figure out by serial number which agencies the unused cards were given to, and ask some questions?

If Metro didn't record these basic figures, then that's a case of massive mismanagement of the program.

Posted by: ah___ | December 22, 2008 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"afsljafweljkjlfe": I believe that the remaining value is actually stored on the card. Unless WMATA can magically reach into your living room and update your card while it's still sitting on your desk, I don't think adding value over the Internet is going to work.

Think about it -- if the remaining value is stored on a server somewhere, then all buses would need to have a flawless wireless connection to their network, and that ain't happening.

Posted by: stuckman | December 22, 2008 12:10 PM | Report abuse

PS: If you really think that all the TARP money is going to bank employees, as opposed to being used to recapatalize financial institutions, then the Washington Post financial coverage is dumber than I thought.

Thanks for reminding me why I only read the Washington Post for transit-related information nowadays, and why I never trust it for actual news.

Posted by: stuckman | December 22, 2008 12:14 PM | Report abuse


In Chicago, you can add value to your public transit card online. Stop making excuses for our third-world, substandard transit system that is run exclusively by inept buffoons.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 22, 2008 12:26 PM | Report abuse

"stuckman," I always assumed it works like E-ZPass, where the value is not actually stored on your device. Instead, it reads the account number and debits that account in the appropriate agency's computer. Your point about the buses is interesting and not one I had thought about because I ride the bus at most twice a year, maybe three times tops, if I have to leave my older car at the mechanic while he obtains parts for it.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 22, 2008 3:21 PM | Report abuse

>I believe that the remaining value is actually stored on the card.

Nope; the value, and all your usage details, are stored on WMATA's servers. That way they can provide it to Chertoff & Co. on request.

And yes, if the bus's RF link goes down or is swamped [Hello, 20Jan]; then you might be riding for free, or not at all...depending on WMATA's policies. Same is true at a Metro station, but they have solid links.

Posted by: George131 | December 22, 2008 7:18 PM | Report abuse

I heard that SmarTrip is a hybrid system. The value is stored on your card AND online. So when you use the card on Metro, the card and the server are updated in real time. When you use it on the bus, it updates in realtime if there is a wireless link. If not, it debits the value from your card, and "makes a note" that that particular card took a ride on that bus. Later in the day, when the bus goes out of service, the driver connects the fairbox to a computer to download fare data. At this point, the computer "syncs up" the card and the server.

Thus, you could pay with SmarTrip on the bus, and have $1.25 taken off your card, and you can then look up your balance online, and the online record of your account might not reflect the trip you took with $1.25 debited until the bus comes back to the garage, but they will debit it eventually retroactively on their servers. This is the same as E-ZPass. E-ZPass transactions are processed in real time in your "home agency" only, and other agencies post a day or so later. So if you have a tag from VDOT, it works in realtime on Dulles Toll Road, but posts the next day for Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore.

Posted by: thetan | December 22, 2008 10:43 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company