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WMATA launches "Short Trip" rail pass on SmarTrip

Starting Monday, Metrorail riders can purchase a "short trip" pass online or at a fare machine and apply it to their SmarTrip cards. It's a big improvement for Metro customers that commute regularly and use Metro on the weekends or for additional trips in the evenings.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The pass costs $35 and is good for one week. It covers all off-peak trips and the first $3.50 of peak trips. If you take a trip costing more than $3.50, the difference comes out of the stored value on your SmarTrip.

Metro already offers SmarTrip passes that give rail riders unlimited rides of any length. Those cost $15 for one day, $57.50 for a week and $230 for 28 days. Those are useful for riders taking longer, more expensive trips. But those who only ride a few stops won't find that pass worthwhile. These new "short trip" passes are much cheaper because they don't cover long trips that riders may not need.

"Short trip" passes were previously available only as a paper farecard. If you took a trip of more than $3.50, you would have to use the Exitfare machine to pay the exact fare when leaving. Putting the pass on a SmarTrip card is much more convenient for riders who take the occasional longer trip, because the faregates can automatically calculate and deduct the extra fare.

Next, consider discounts and even passes for even shorter trips

You can also subscribe online to have the pass automatically renew when the old one is about to expire. For some riders, this is a good option. But since the pass costs the equivalent of 10 rides, it's not such a good deal that you'd want to set it and forget it, which could mean you'd end up buying one even on weeks with work holidays or vacation. I'd like to see a monthly pass with a discount, so that more riders would find it worthwhile to just buy passes automatically even around holidays.

Now that Metro's figured out how to implement a pass where people pay and get trips under a certain amount free, they could even try offering passes with a threshold below $3.50. For example, a pass that costs $100 per month and allows all trips under $2.50 each way for free might be very popular among riders that live in DC.

Give credit for bus transfers

One downside to the "short trip" pass is that it doesn't discount transfers between bus and rail. WMATA representatives have previously said that allowing transfer discounts to pass holders would be like giving discounts on top of discounts.

However, the transfer discount used to be available for pass holders when WMATA used paper transfer slips. When the WMATA Board approved replacing them with SmarTrip tracking, there was no discussion about eliminating the discount as well.

The discount isn't really a "discount," anyway. It's a recognition that a trip that uses bus and rail is really one trip on two modes, and the fare probably shouldn't be the same as two totally separate trips. You don't pay double the rail fare if you transfer between rail lines. In many cities, like New York, a bus plus rail trip costs the same as just one trip alone.

WMATA should restore the transfer discounts for all pass holders, and give riders with a rail pass the same reduced fare on the bus as any rider coming from a rail trip. Similarly, all riders should get the same fare when they transfer from bus to rail, whether or not they have a Metrobus pass.

All in all, "short trip" passes on SmarTrip are a great option, and I expect to subscribe to them in the future.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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Finally something that makes sense

by Richard Bourne on May 17, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

I commute daily in the morning either $3.55 or $4.05 in the morning but on the way back only 2.75. I often take the metro during weekends and sometimes midday. I really wanted to use the 3.50 unlimited option but was always stuck because of the paper farecards needing extra $$ for the 05-55 cents

by Richard Bourne on May 17, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

How about an actual monthly pass? This shouldn't be too hard to do. Then I could buy it with SmartBenefits and stop having to think about it at all.

by Gray on May 17, 2013 1:39 pm • linkreport

It's a good start, but it's not even on my radar without incorporation of bus transfers.

by Alan B. on May 17, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

Next thing should be a unified

1 week short trip bus/rail pass, 1 week regular bus/rail pass and 1 month bus/rail pass. Which will never happen.

It is terrible here when you have to take both the bus and the rail, it was way better before they ended paper transfers. I would be willing to have higher bus and rail fares if it meant you could transfer between either bus or rail with no added fee.

I remember the fares back from the 80's to now; most of the reasons they give for everything defy logic or are just simple BS.

They charged for transfers at one point

The 80 cent special Anacostia fare (because they cut every bus route that crossed the Anacostia River to end at Anacostia when the station opened so everyone immediately had there fares raised to about double)

if you were on rail then took a bus you use to pay something like 35 cents; then they added the bus to rail transfer but didnt mention the discount was going down so you had to pay almost the full fare (something that was overlooked perhaps on purpose as none of the pamphlets said anything about it)

by kk on May 17, 2013 1:51 pm • linkreport

4 x 35 = $140. While that's better than $280, it's still pretty expensive. We really should be looking to San Francisco, which offers a SF City-only unlimited option that works on buses, streetcar, and BART. It costs $76 per month and serves a similar area as DC. Granted the short trip pass is more flexible. As another point of comparison, an unlimited monthly subway pass in NYC costs $112 and gets you to the farthest reaches of the city with free bus transfers. Pretty much every system in the world has an affordable monthly option that benefits residents who use the system for more than just commuting.

Also, I really don't understand why we don't have free transfers between rail and buses. It's outrageous and severely lowers the connectivity of the system, as you're charged as though you're riding two completely separate systems. When NYC implemented free subway-bus transfers in 1997, ridership began to shoot up and hasn't stopped since.

by Bike Planner on May 17, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

WMATA has crappy transfer policies because they have a bus system and a rail system, and never the twain shall meet. DC had the bus system (and streetcars before) originally, and then an entirely separate entity was created to build and run the rail system. The lowly bus system was just tacked on to that at some point. It used to be they even had separate customer service numbers.

I'm sure they are scared of losing revenue if they implement free transfers, but I wonder how much it would drive rail ridership up? They release basically zero information about ridership or rail-bus trips as they currently exist, so it's hard to tell.

The Muni fast pass is cheap for sure, Muni fares are quite low. Their bus pass is $64 (similar to WMATA, about $16/week), but the $10 BART option only gives you free access to 8 stations.

by MLD on May 17, 2013 2:19 pm • linkreport

@Bike Planner: Metro's fare system has always treated the bus and rail systems as almost completely separate and it's going to take board vision/strategy to get them to change.

The fact that bus fares and rail fares increase without the board also increasing the transfer discount means a lot of riders get hit with double increases. On most other systems the transfer discount is expressed as a lower "transfer fare," which gets increased at the same rate as the other fares.

I think this is all part of the fact that the DC bus system was kind of tacked on to WMATA at the last minute when it was about to go bankrupt.

by Michael Perkins on May 17, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Wow. Another complicated fee thing. We have electronic passes. Why can't we just stick to those?

by Jasper on May 17, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

We have electronic passes.

We do?

The other thing that is desperately needed is the ability to buy passes using smartbenefits!

by MLD on May 17, 2013 2:37 pm • linkreport

Agreed. If I can't buy it using SmartBenefits, it isn't happening.

by MetMet on May 17, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

This is a good start.

Now, to really make it work, WMATA needs to offer these kinds of passes at different price points.

The price of a weekly pass is 10x the base fare. So, a $35 pass covers all peak trips under 3.50... And all off-peak fares are going to be under $3.50 anyway, so they're covered.

Now, if they offer a product that was $25 a week and covered all fares under 2.50 per ride, with riders paying the difference if they go over out of the cash balance on their cards, that would be very useful.

Offer one at $30, one at $35, one at $40, one at $50, etc... Give people the power of the pass!

And yes, ordering and paying for such a pass via SmartBenefits dollars already on your account is a must.

by Alex B. on May 17, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

I believe the info from WMATA on this short trip pass says that if you use the Farragut Crossing "virtual tunnel" transfer between the Farraguts it will count at two trips. In other words, the short trip pass does not recognise the "virtual tunnel". This is great for some riders!! For Example, this means if you commute from East Falls Church to Bethesda, a $4.55 rush hour fare, you CAN use the short trip pass. Yes, $4.55 is over the limit for short trips, but if you use the Farragut Crossing "virtual tunnel" the pass does not recognise the transfer. I think that means, based on what I read, that splitting the trip into a East Falls Church to Farragut West and a Farragut North to Bethesda trip, a $3.25 trip and a $3.15 trip, rather than one $4.55 trip, means you can use the Short Trip Pass without having to cough up the extra $1.50 at the end of the trip.

by Patrick on May 17, 2013 4:11 pm • linkreport

...cough up the extra $1.55 at the end. Yeah, I can add. ;)

by Patrick on May 17, 2013 4:13 pm • linkreport

From Metro's press release found at:

"Metrorail trips that include a transfer between Farrragut North and Farragut West stations (Farragut Crossing virtual tunnel) will be calculated as two separate trips."

by Patrick on May 17, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

@Patrick, wouldn't they necessarily enforce some minimum amount of time between leaving and entering a station? Otherwise I could just stop at a random point along my journey, walk out through the faregate, then walk back in and catch the next train. Or I could, say, stop at Metro Center and walk to Gallery Place to catch the next train.

Of course, they don't need to worry about me doing that, since they aren't bothering to make a monthly pass and it's just way too much of a hassle to try to deal with weekly passes when everything else (e.g. SmartBenefits) is based on a monthly system.

by Gray on May 17, 2013 4:23 pm • linkreport

You can do that with any transfer by returning to the surface. Go from Congress Heights to Chinatown exit the fare gates then immediately renter and go to the red line platform for Bethesda

by Richard Bourne on May 17, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

I think they are banking on people not wanting to waste 5+ minutes exiting and re-entering. Also they can track usage so they could talk to people who do this if they don't want that behavior.

by MLD on May 17, 2013 4:37 pm • linkreport

A silly question: shouldn't WMATA have implemented features like the Short Trip pass on the SmarTrip cards - along with completing deployment of the SmarTrip vending machine st all stations (oops) - BEFORE implementing the $1 extra per trip fee on the paper cards? Just saying that they should rolled out added capabilities for the SmarTrip cards to encourage people to get the Smartrips before slapping on the $1 penalty on the paper cards. DC Metro ridership is down and I think the $1 fee & the seemingly ever more complicated pricing is contributing to that. I feel sorry for the tourists, visitors, and first time users who have to figure out what they need to buy to use the Metro for the day.

The posts above on the Farragut Crossing virtual tunnel effects on fare pricing for the Short Trip are worthy of one of those explanations of a complicated part of the US Tax code.

by AlanF on May 17, 2013 4:42 pm • linkreport

Why? The short trip pass is for frequent riders - those people should be using SmarTrip to begin with, not a paper card. And the passes don't have the $1 charge, so I'm not sure why that's a disincentive to use a pass.

There are a bunch of reasons to use SmarTrip that have nothing to do with passes - it doesn't get demagnetized, if you lose it you still have your money, you get the bus-rail transfer, etc.

The transit agency should charge paper pass users (and cash users) more - it costs the agency more in terms of cash collection, and especially in terms of wear and tear on the machinery that reads the cards.

by MLD on May 17, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

So basically, anyone who commutes 5 days a week with a trip over $3.50 should get it? $3.50 x 10 = $35. Then any other metro trip you happen to take is covered. Am I missing something on the math?

My employer doesn't use SmartBenefits for some foolish reason, so this sounds nice. My normal trip is $3.55.

by Brian S on May 17, 2013 5:10 pm • linkreport

As a frequent visitor to DC, this sounds ideal.

Some of my trips are at Peak, others are not. And often the hotel I am staying at is close to where I am going.

I try to stay close to a Metro station, so the much more expensive to operate Metrobus option is not needed.

by Alan S. Drake on May 18, 2013 8:44 am • linkreport

Bike Planner and MLD, most of the world's major cities have free transfer from bus to rail to streetcar or whatever. NYC and Toronto are nearby examples.

Once you've ridden such a system you see how the lack of free transfer in DMV helps contribute to the economic segregation of the area. A lot of demographics are priced out of rail.

The purpose should be to get people to ride, not drive. I think if WMATA charged $100 a month to ride there would be a whole lot more riders and fewer drivers.

by Capt. Hilts on May 18, 2013 9:06 am • linkreport

Great - but when are they going to start offering passes for tourists. Like one or three days covering all buses as well as rail, like you can buy in NYC or London or Paris or Singapore . . . .

by Dan Gamber on May 18, 2013 12:13 pm • linkreport

@dan gamber: there's a $15 one-day pass that only works on rail.

Traditionally, there's been a hard wall between the rail and bus fare systems. Personally, I think the rail passes should be valid on bus for no additional fare, and the bus passes should be good for the first $1.50 (or whatever the smartrip bus fare is now) of a rail trip.

by Michael Perkins on May 18, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport

Update: Metro confirmed to me that the rail short trip pass can't be purchased using Smartbenefits. Metro says that improvement is in the works.

by Michael Perkins on May 21, 2013 9:27 am • linkreport

It sucks that the ONLY bus pass option is 1 week for $16.
I do one day of 6 buses for a total of $9.60.
I run but still never meet th 2 hour free transfer limit.
I'd love to be ale to buy a $7.50 all day bus pass again.

by LILk on Sep 11, 2013 8:21 am • linkreport

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