Greater Greater Washington

Metro indecision previously delayed SmarTrip three years

Recent revelations that Metro has again delayed SmarTrip upgrades by one year have sparked tough questions from many directions. The news took members of the Metro Board by surprise, and they are asking questions, including whether Metro really has to delay this upgrade. RAC Chair Diana Zinkl is pushing hard to get a presentation on SmarTrip and the delays at next week's RAC meeting. I've also emailed questions to Metro.


Photo by WTL photos.

We deserve to know why the promised upgrades were delayed another year, and whether it's a contractor, Cubic, or Metro that was unable to handle both the IRS SmartBenefits change and these other upgrades at the same time. Metro should explain when they knew this delay would happen, and if they knew a while ago, why we are just finding out now, given that these IRS upgrades have been in the works for months.

Michael Perkins sent me this report from the Metro Inspector General in February 2008. According to the report, the SmarTrip system was delayed while Metro spent three years trying to decide whether to upgrade the SmarTrip system or continue making custom modifications to an out-of-date one.

In July 2003, Metro awarded a contract to Cubic to upgrade the SmarTrip system. But two moths later, Cubic told WMATA that they wanted to stop supporting the OS/2-based existing systems and upgrade SmarTrip to the next generation system, NextFare4. Metro ultimately decided to go with the newer system, but had to spend time evaluating and analyzing this new technology and making sure it would meet Metro's needs.

That's fine, but that process took three whole years, and a new contract wasn't signed until August 2006. In the meantime, Cubic had to stop working on the contract. As a result of the delay, Metro had to pay $1.4 million in "delay claims" to another contractor, ERG, which was setting up a Regional Customer Service Center. According to the report, "Cubic representatives informed [the IG] that they believed their proposal to use NextFare4 distracted WMATA's project team."

The original contract scheduled the SmarTrip upgrades to be delivered in October 2004, plus a few months for Metro to test the upgrades and Cubic to fix any problems. As of the February 2008 report, the schedule called for delivery in October 2008. That later got bumped to October 2009, and last week, to late 2010.

The IG report talks about best practices in procurement to make sure contracts account for delays, specify milestones, and include penalties for contractors who go past the specified time (or change their systems midstream and saddle Metro with a tough choice). And it sounds like Cubic made things difficult by suggesting a pricey change right after Metro had spent months negotiating a contract. But three years to evaluate a system and negotiate a new one seems excessive.

From the riders' point of view, there's a simple issue here: these changes were supposed to be ready at the start of 2005. Now it looks like they'll come in nearly six years behind schedule. That's not acceptable, especially without communication to the public about what's going on, why, and when this will finally get done.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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There are failures like these across the board at Metro, and I think it's time that we take a look at the bigger picture.

WMATA suffers from an insurmountable budget deficit, inept leadership, and an institutional structure that is ultimately to blame for the agency's troubles. At this point, there is only one entity that has the money and resources to fix Metro: the U.S. government.

In exchange for funding the system's immense operational and capital needs, WMATA should be placed under federal conservatorship. Letting the feds clean out the administration from top to bottom may be the only way to remove the ingrained institutional problems at the agency. During this period of federal conservatorship, the federal government along with D.C., Maryland, and Virginia should come to a new compact addressing the institutional and funding deficiencies that got Metro to this point.

As somebody who remembers the D.C. Financial Control Board, I can't say that I am ultimately happy with the feds stepping in to fix things. However, we may never have this type of transit-friendly administration or Congress ever again. And frankly, I don't think WMATA has any other options.

by Adam L on Oct 29, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

Sort of reminds me of how I was in college.

"Oh, I do have to study for tomorrow's test I've known about for weeks and still haven't studied for, but OH MY GOD I was just assigned this one-page paper! I have to do that! No studying!"

by Tim on Oct 29, 2009 12:40 pm • linkreport

Frankly, it's outrageous. As a customer who uses the top-drawer weekly pass, I cannot use Metro parking. What kind of madness is this and how long can it persist. Force us to pay with SmartTrip but not allow us to use to a pass? How can any organization push that kind of agenda - and, gallingly, if it is pushed forward, to expect riders to abide by it FOR YEARS is simply out of the question.

SmartTrip is so mismanaged that I suggest a full on rider revolt. Break down the barriers and ride Metro for free until WMATA pulls itself out of what can only be seen as a legacy mindset that has no place in a 21st Century transit system.

This situation is wholly untenable. WMATA must move towards complete transparency on these issues and they must do so immediately. WMATA must resolve and release the changes to SmartTrip as planned. There can be no excuses. This is the end of the line.

by Ridersare#1 on Oct 29, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

According to those press releases, the software rollout should have happened by the end of 2009. In that case, by now they should have been testing the final bugs in the system. It sounds like they are just using this as an excuse as to why they forgot to do this. The software should have already been written and a majority tested by now if they were following their original plan.

by Erik on Oct 29, 2009 1:21 pm • linkreport

WMATA should pay attention. Brazilians set a train on fire for a 12 minute delay due to mechanical difficulty. Of course the conductor did abandon the train for some reason and left the passengers locked inside.

If there were an increasing number of riders who simply bypassed the faregate and walked through the non-pay gate what could they do? They don't have enough police to man every station and we all know Metro station managers aren't about to get off their butts.

I don't see why people couldn't just make their own 'air bridge' between faragut west and north by walking out of faragut west and going through the non-pay gate and entering faragut north via the non-pay gate. Done.

I realize this isn't very 'nice', but WMATA isn't very 'compentent' or 'effective' either so fair's fair.

by James on Oct 29, 2009 4:19 pm • linkreport

The delays wouldnÂ’t be nearly as bad if Metro would explain what the upgrades actually entail, and what the current schedule is (i.e. detail each feature and explain when it will be ready). Most of us are still guessing at exactly what types of passes Metro is working on. ItÂ’s bad when the delivery date has come and gone and the only word we have gotten was slipped into another announcement. As with so many other things in life, a little honesty and some open communication go a long way. In the end, the upgrades are simply 5 years late with no (acceptable) explanation as to why.

by James on Oct 29, 2009 8:48 pm • linkreport

I think anyone who has worked on the planning end would laugh in the face of "Ridersare#1". You have a good point, they just know how things are from the other side and how it took forever to get all the regional agencies on board and how the end of paper transfers would have been up to a year earlier if it wasn't for PG County dragging their heels until being forced to give in. And yet up in Canada, the similarly balkanized transit situation there (STM, AMT, RTL, STL, the suburban CIT's) and RTC in Quebec City adopted Carte OPUS less than a year after tests began.

I think at this point, the best thing for Metro to do is to release the upgrades as a prelude of a "SmarTrip 2.0" system. Someone will bring up the "three different jurisdictions" excuse, but there will come a point where paper farecards will be obsolete and that a replacement will need to be put in place. There are off the shelf fare machines that WMATA can buy that can sell a multitude of passes and handle Smartrip cards and it might be better to invest in those than keeping 1970's technology going.

The more I find out about WMATA, the more the SEPTA's and MARTA's of the world look good and the more that Arlington, Fairfax, any independent cities within, Montgomery, and PG need to join forces with DC and make a 51st state. That might be the only solution to DC's woes.

by Jason on Oct 29, 2009 11:56 pm • linkreport

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