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Posted at 2:13 PM ET, 09/ 2/2010

WMATA's options on SmarTrip negative balances

By David Alpert

WMATA raised the hackles of many riders when it announced SmarTrips would no longer go negative. Responding to the outcry, CFO Carol Kissal and her team developed six alternatives for handing the issue, which they presented to the Riders' Advisory Council last night.

RAC members complimented Kissal and her team on presenting a number of options and seeking rider feedback. While it would have been better to get more feedback before the initial announcement, the follow-up garnered more praise. The WMATA Board will discuss the issue on Sept. 16.

To recap, right now SmarTrip cards cost $5. In most places you can buy them, including vending machines at stations with parking and most CVS, Giant and other stores, they cost $10 and come with $5 of stored value. At commuter stores and Metro sales offices as well as some private stores, they go for $5 and a zero balance.

A rider who buys a zero balance card can immediately get on rail or bus and take a trip, going negative. They just have to fill the card up to or above zero before they can get onto transit again using the card. The SmarTrip negative balance option doesn't apply to parking garages; people have to have the parking charge on the card.

Compare this to the paper farecards, which you can't use to get on a bus or train unless it has the minimum fare, and can't exit without adequate fare. If you don't have enough, you have to go to an Exitfare machine, which only take cash and are limited in number.

The WMATA Board asked for the SmarTrip price to go down to $2.50 to make them more affordable for poorer riders. However, officials started to worry. Someone could buy a SmarTrip for $2.50 (at a commuter store or sales office) with $0 value, immediately take a $4.95 long-distance ride or $6 airport bus trip, and throw away the card, basically cheating Metro out of up to $3.50.

Their best guess was that this could cost $1 million a month in lost fare revenue, plus quickly deplete the existing stock of SmarTrips. In my earlier post, I expressed skepticism that there would really be so much cheating, and they wait and see whether there is indeed abuse. They told the RAC last night that this would be an option, and they do have the ability to track how many SmarTrips go negative and then don't get used any more.

Or, they could modify the plan. They devised six options:

[Continue reading David Alpert's post here on Greater Greater Washington.]

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By David Alpert  | September 2, 2010; 2:13 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Metro, transportation  
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