Greater Greater Washington

Is blocking negative SmarTrip balances really necessary?

WMATA announced a surprising set of changes to SmarTrip: riders will no longer be able to "go negative" a few dollars, like they can today.


Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Why is WMATA making this change? At a recent meeting, the Board asked for the price of SmarTrip cards to be reduced from $5.00 to $2.50. According to many groups that serve low-income riders, the price of a SmarTrip card is a burden for some.

The recent fare hike included a new differential between SmarTrip and paper farecards, in an attempt to charge casual riders (like tourists) more than regular riders, but that makes SmarTrip ownership even more necessary.

The current arrangement lets riders still leave the system if their fare costs more than the amount on the card, but they can't enter the system if the card has gone negative. In other words, if you have $1.50 on your card and take a $3.25 trip, the faregates will let you out and your card will show -$1.45, but you will have to refill the card before you can ride again. This avoids the need for riders to use the Exitfare machines to get out, which only take cash (and currently don't work with SmarTrip at all).

However, if cards only cost $2.50, riders might be able to buy a card, spend more than $2.50, and throw the card away, basically cheating Metro. Therefore, WMATA plans to change the system so that negative balances are no longer allowed. Exitfare machines will start working with SmarTrips, but they still will only take cash.

Some of you warned about this when the SmarTrip cost reduction was announced. However, I agreed with Jamie, who argued this probably wasn't a real danger:

Does anyone really see droves of people buying a new smart trip card for every Metro trip for the purpose of gaming the system on the order of, er, a dollar? Really? Have you even been to a CVS before? That would effectively double the time involved in any given trip.

You know, you can just jump the turnstile if you are among the tiny portion of society that gets off on small-scale heists. People do that often enough without having to go to CVS, and they save as much as $5 instead of just a buck!

[And] I don't see someone trying to save a dollar on Metro fares laying down $100 or so in advance [to buy cards in bulk]. Totally conflicting mentalities.

Metro would almost certainly win, anyway, given they are holding that cash for some time and some of them will likely end up unused.

Since the cards still cost $2.50, people would not only have to take the time to buy all these cards, but be regularly riding them for trips over $2.50. Furthermore, CVS and Giant sell the cards for $10, including $5 of stored value (which will become $7.50 of stored value after the price drop). That makes it hard to pull this scam at most of the places SmarTrips are sold, unless these hypothetical fraudsters are willing to spend a lot of real legitimate money for every dollar they cheat WMATA out of.

I think it would have been better for WMATA to keep allowing negative balances, and instead of spending a lot of time and contractors to reprogram the machines and add SmarTrip targets to the Exitfares, just have someone run an analysis of the numbers of negative SmarTrips that get abandoned (such as never used again within 6 months). If it turns out to be more than a tiny nuisance, then go ahead and make this change. Otherwise it might be much ado about nothing.

As an alternative, I wonder if WMATA could program the faregates to not let a rider in with a balance of $0 (or, perhaps that's already the case). Then, a rider can't just buy 20 cards and use each one for a throwaway ride costing more than $2.50. Instead, they'd have to buy the cards, take the time to put $1 on each card, and then take each one for a rider costing more than $3.50.

Would anyone really do that to save at most $1.45 a trip ($5.00 max fare minus 25¢ SmarTrip discount plus 20¢ peak-of-the-peak)?

Probably the easiest place to pull this would be for riders at more distant stations with parking, since those stations allow easy purchase of SmarTrips and many rides from those stations indeed cost over $2.50. If this turns out to be a real problem, perhaps there are some easier solutions that are more targeted, like selling cards there for $5.00 with $2.50 of stored value already on them. Or WMATA can just go ahead with this change once it becomes clear it's a problem. I still doubt it will start an epidemic.

On another note, I suspect the Board will be irritated to hear about this, because unless I missed the discussion, it didn't come up when they were suggesting the change. At the time, staff told them that cards cost about $1, but then later corrected that to say they cost $3.40.

In other words, they initially made the decision believing they were still selling the cards for more than cost and that it wouldn't force any other changes, but instead, WMATA will lose money on each card, and riders have been inconvenienced, possibly unnecessarily.

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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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All I want to do is put my SmartTrip on my credit card; just like EZ-Pass. While they may have seemed a daunting task a decade ago whatwith building the software, organising data, & keeping it secure... since then I'd think such software packages are a bit more mainstream. I could've sworn this was in development... any news on that?

by Bossi on Aug 25, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

They say it will be done this fall, I think.

by David Alpert on Aug 25, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

What about the ability to run a negative balance + a penalty fee? Banks are/were charging absurd fees for people who overdrew their checking accounts. Not to suggest Metro should charge absurd fees, but maybe an extra fifty-cents or a buck as incentive for people to keep their balance positive?

Maybe IÂ’m old-fashioned or itÂ’s a Midwestern thing, but I canÂ’t believe how many people are claiming they never carry any cash around with them. I always have a little cash in my wallet. You never know when you might need it...

by Rob on Aug 25, 2010 4:04 pm • linkreport

Given how long it took WMATA to increase the number of outside-the-gate fare machines that take SmarTrip, I'm not holding my breath for all the Exitfare machines to get SmarTrip readers. But what will happen if somebody gets stuck inside a station without an upgraded Exitfare machine?

by Greenbelt Gal on Aug 25, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

I'm definitely among the cashless folk... I try to remember to keep a buck in my wallet in case I want to grab an Arizona quickly, but that's about it. Apart from when traveling, I haven't had more than perhaps $5 in my wallet at any given time since the 90's.

by Bossi on Aug 25, 2010 4:09 pm • linkreport

Wonderful.

Now every rush hour will include people tapping and not being let through, and having to turn around and shove their way through an angry mob to get to the exit fare machine. And then be late to work.

Thanks metro, wonderful customer service.

by JJJJJ on Aug 25, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

Regarding bus rider usage of 'negative' or cashed-out SmartTrip cards, every time I've seen a rider attempt to use one [and claim they don't have any cash/change on them] the driver lets them ride for free. This has become the new day [or week] old paper transfer, at least on the routes I ride.

by ontarioroader on Aug 25, 2010 4:13 pm • linkreport

What's the logic behind this decision? What's the cost/benefit? Who made the decision?

Announcing decisions via press release, with no prior public discussion, is just the kind of opaqueness that we (used to?) all complain about with Metro. I thought things got better with the fare hike process, but I guess not.

by Gavin on Aug 25, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

Count me among the cashless. I'll often go 2-3 weeks without cash. I don't even have my new debit card's pin memorized. And I never know exactly how much is on my smartrip. This is going to be a miserable policy.

They need to do auto-fill by credit card like ez-pass if they're going to have this policy.

by Jenny on Aug 25, 2010 4:18 pm • linkreport

As far as I know, the only reason to let people go negative was because the exitfare machines didn't have smartrip readers. If they add them, what's the purpose for letting people go negative?

Also, does (or did) the parking machines allow negative balances? That's a flat $5, so clearly that would be easily exploitable.

by jcm on Aug 25, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

As an alternative, I wonder if WMATA could program the faregates to not let a rider in with a balance of $0 (or, perhaps that's already the case).
I'm almost 100% sure that's currently the case. To enter the system with a SmarTrip card, it needs to have at least the minimum fare (either reduced or peak, depending on time. I can't promise it will check the peak-of-peak surcharge.)

Unless I'm misunderstanding what you were asking.

by Byron on Aug 25, 2010 4:23 pm • linkreport

I see plenty of nitwits trying to enter the fare gates and being turned back by negative balance. For every "responsible negative balancer" out there who leaves negative but is always diligent about correcting that, there are 4 or 5 people who don't have a clue. I don't buy the argument that this will cause significantly more delays, and if it does it will not last long. People will get the message.

by Lou on Aug 25, 2010 4:30 pm • linkreport

OK, for a while I thought that maybe this was announced a while ago and I had just missed it. But given that David seems surprised by this, I guess I'm OK.

Another note, this piece of information was buried in a press release regarding the morning peak of the peak fare taking effect. Not exactly the most visible way to do it.

by Steven Yates on Aug 25, 2010 4:35 pm • linkreport

Could an email notification be implemented for those who've registered their cards to remind them when their balance goes negative or beneath some other minimum threshold?

by Bossi on Aug 25, 2010 4:35 pm • linkreport

Will Smartrip users be able to just add a $20 bill to their cards? Or will it just give change like the current machines? If I only need 10 cents and I have to get change for a $20, I will be seriously pissed.

@ontarioroader

Agreed. I often see the same people not have any money on their Smartrip cards and the operator just lets them by every day. It makes me wonder I bother to pay the fare.

by Adam L on Aug 25, 2010 4:59 pm • linkreport

I feel like many riders won't even notice this change. Those who often park in SmarTrip-using garages (including myself) already can't go into the negative. Of course, not everyone knows this. One night after taking Metro to see a show at the 9:30 Club, I got stuck leaving the College Park garage behind a long line of cars packed with kids who all had insufficient money in their cars.

by dan reed! on Aug 25, 2010 5:05 pm • linkreport

Don't you HAVE to spend at least $10 to get a smart trip card in the first place? $2.50 for the cost of the card and $7.50 value on it? So I don't think people would be buying them to just use them once and throw it away. Is WMATA ACTUALLY doing this, or is it just speculation at this point?

by Mark P. on Aug 25, 2010 5:06 pm • linkreport

One observation before my rant: how much of this is being driven by Metro's collective memory on the cut-up farecard scam? I'm sure some low income people are getting the subsided/free cards and doing this trick, but I also suspect this is a far lower number than the number of people jumping through faregates, sneaking on to back door of buses, and passing fake $1 bills.

Rant: Typical WMATA madness. The key thing they want to do is TAKE things away rather than improve any aspect of their customer experience. is this a push to put your credit card on your smarttrip? And I can't wait for the lines as people struggle to get out.

I can see the logic -- forcing people like me to keep $5 or $10 more on their smarttrip might give them a nice float. What they forget is I am going to be so turned off that non-essential use of WMATA is going to drop.

by charlie on Aug 25, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

They used to allow people to get out of the parking garages with a negative balance. But that made it possible to get the balance to go past negative $5 (by taking a Metro trip that resulted in a negative balance and then leaving the parking garage). What was the result? People started doing that on purpose and then throwing away the cards. That's why you can't exit a parking garage with a negative balance anymore. See http://www.wtop.com/index.php?nid=30&sid=435247 for a news story about this.

Or, to put it more directly: the last time it was possible to save money by throwing away a Smartrip card with a negative balance, people did. And enough people did that to make Metro change the rules to prevent it. So those of you who are saying "Nobody would do that." are wrong.

by Rob on Aug 25, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

The current system lets you in to the faregates if you have as little as $0.05 on your farecard.

According to the press release, they are changing the fare gates so that you must have the minimum value for a trip on the card in order to gain entry. Sounds logical to me.

I think with SmarTrip cards costing the authority more than the value they're being sold for coupled with the ability to get free trips if you don't reuse your card combine to a very strong motivation to change the policy.

Honestly, though, I always thought the negative balance minimum was equal to the value of the card for a reason. If the new cards cost $2.50, why not allow a negative balance down to -$2.50?

by Michael on Aug 25, 2010 5:25 pm • linkreport

Correction: The current system lets you in to the faregates if you have as little as $0.05 on your farecard SmarTrip card.

by Michael on Aug 25, 2010 5:26 pm • linkreport

How about smartrip readers and fareboxes that work first that should be more of a priority. I have witnessed times when people were cheated via smartrips and or the fareboxes many times; that is more of a concern than cutting the price of the card by 50%

And what happens when the unknowing person pays with a creditcard/debitcard tries to exit but does not have enough value on the card and does not have cash.

by kk on Aug 25, 2010 5:35 pm • linkreport

@Rob; there is a huge difference between going negative in a garage and going negative on rail.

Every garage user has an incentive to rack up time.

But to get the max rail fare -- and for your math to work -- you have to travel someplace. Someplace far. And that really limits the universe of people who are going to take advantage of this.

What I really predict is we going to have a rash of station managers letting people out when they complain "no credit card machine on the exit fare box". Typical WMATA. Their executive is so poor they can't even figure out how to make money.

by charlie on Aug 25, 2010 5:42 pm • linkreport

God I hate WMATA so much.

by Martin on Aug 25, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

Ok. WMATA is going to do what they want and I'm not going to argue (it would be like arguing with an ibex). But where's the logic in reducing the smartrip card price to begin with? If they see a one-time $5 fee as such a burden, where was this consideration upon the multiple fare increases recently? It seems like one-time $5 < new fare prices.

This goes back to what I hate most about wmata. It's not the prices, it's the complete lack of logic and/or the flat-out lying/purposeful miscommunication.

by Chris on Aug 25, 2010 5:47 pm • linkreport

@charlie-Exactly right. What happens now when someone can't exit because they don't have enough money on their farecard and don't have any cash? The Station Manager lets them exit for free. (Actually, he can at least take the farecard and throw it away, which at least give WMATA the balance of the unused farecard.) Now, when people don't have cash for their SmarTrip cards, they'll be allowed to leave without paying too. I'll bet the lost revenue from these free rides will more than offset any revenue that would have been lost from the theoretical problem of people discarding SmarTrip cards with negative balances.

The Board shouldn't just get "irritated." They should actually intervene and stop this.

by Jimmy on Aug 25, 2010 5:55 pm • linkreport

not true about minimum fare. You need to have 5 cents minimum. I run a negative balance a lot, because I don't carry much cash either. E.g., like two nights ago, I only had $1 and a negative balance and I didn't want to take out $20 from an ATM and then buy something to breakit, so I just rode my bike home from Capitol Hill, rather than take the Metro from Union Station or NY Ave. to Takoma.

by Richard Layman on Aug 25, 2010 6:29 pm • linkreport

I still don't understand what the purpose is of allowing someone to go negative. Presumably, if you don't have cash, and you can't get out, they'll treat it the exact same way they would treat it with paper. Walk you over to the machine and add value if you have a cc, let you go if you don't. Maybe they'll even set your card to a negative value manually.

Do you guys take cabs without enough money to pay the fare and assume the driver will let you go negative? Eat at restaurants and go negative?

Be adults and make sure there's enough on your card before you enter the gates.

by jcm on Aug 25, 2010 6:36 pm • linkreport

@JCM:

"Walk you over to the machine and add value if you have a cc"; how many stations have 1) a smarttrip exit fare machine that 2) takes a credit card and 3) works. OH, and stand in line as well.

"Be adults and make sure there's enough on your card before you enter the gates": exactly how do I do that? ask the station manager? Pray?

As an experiment once, I tried to add $1.20 via a credit card to my smarttrip, and there was some minimum the machine would not go below (I have a prepaid CC that I was trying to use it, and I figured it was worth a shot)

Clearly, metro does not want any who does not use SmartBenefits to use this system. Think of how much nicer it will be when you get rid of those pesky non-federal riders.

by charlie on Aug 25, 2010 6:52 pm • linkreport

You can "go negative" on a paper farecard, too. You just can't get out. That's what the exitfare machines are for.

The logic in allowing it for SmarTrip was that the exitfare machines did not take SmarTrip, therefore you needed to exit in order to add more value. Once that's the case, the difference between making the minimum value to enter the system either be the minimum value (5 cents) or the minimum fare is rather trivial when the overall cost of the card is $5.

by Ahem. on Aug 25, 2010 6:58 pm • linkreport

WMATA is also currently considering requiring Smartrip cards to have the minimum fare on the card before being allowed to enter the system--at least according to documents being circulated internally at WMATA.

by kreeggo on Aug 25, 2010 7:00 pm • linkreport

"WMATA is also currently considering requiring Smartrip cards to have the minimum fare on the card before being allowed to enter the system"

An unstated benefit of letting people enter the system w/o the minimum fare is it reduces lines at the smarttrip machines. Important during rush hour and other busy times. Metro has put in a lot more machines, so that is less important a policy reason, but those machines frequently seem have problems (especially w/credit cards).

I think someone at GGW posted a few weeks ago that transaction times for CC on smarttrip machines has been greatly reduced. I noticed that on one transaction.

by charlie on Aug 25, 2010 7:10 pm • linkreport

Reducing the price of SmarTrip cards is a great idea.

However, preventing SmarTrip cards from going negative is a terrible idea:

1) The only way to see how much you have on your SmarTrip card is to swipe it at a faregate or at a fare machine. It is really easy to forget how much you have on your card until after you've entered the system, at which point there's no way to get back out unless you have cash,
are allowed to run a negative balance, or hop the faregate.

2) Regular riders know that it's not hard to jump the faregates. Since the exit fare machines don't take credit cards or SmartBenefits and there are never very many of the machines, regular riders would be much more likely to jump the faregates if their SmarTrip card won't let them out. They would do this not to save money, but simply to save time and inconvenience.

I suspect this would cost Metro more than the predicted losses from abandoned cards.

3) How much money will Metro spend to upgrade the exit fare machines? If it is more than the predicted loses from abandoned cards (have they even estimated this using real numbers?), then why bother?

Instead, Metro should make sure that:

1) you can't enter the system without the minimum fare (it sounds like this is already the case)

2) put an initial balance of at least one minimum fare on the card no matter where you buy it

3) allow customers to exit the system at the same station where they entered, within a short amount of time, without paying any fare.

by Andrew on Aug 25, 2010 7:13 pm • linkreport

@charlie:
I think what JCM meant was that the station manager would walk you over to the entry faregates and make you add value.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 25, 2010 8:00 pm • linkreport

*Entry fare machines. Sorry.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 25, 2010 8:00 pm • linkreport

Compromise position: Only let smart trips IN to the system if they have greater than the minimum fare. That will obviate the need for any changes to the exit fare card machines while assuring that people do not go too much negative.

by A on Aug 25, 2010 8:05 pm • linkreport

Of course they were going to do this. It has nothing to do with the price of the smartrip card, but the fact that exit fare machines did not originally accept smartrip cards.

by anon on Aug 25, 2010 8:34 pm • linkreport

@charlie You must pay a fortune in overdraft fees if you can't figure out how to keep enough cash in an account to pay your bills

@Andrew. You can check you balance on the website, or at the farecard machines. How is that not good enough? I have a hard time picturing a mass of DC commuters hopping gates because metro won't loan them a couple of bucks every time they run their balance down. More likely, people will just keep a bit of a cushion on their card.

by jcm on Aug 25, 2010 8:45 pm • linkreport

It's worth noting here that you don't actually have to "hop" over anything in order to go through without paying - just following closely enough behind the person in front of you, as is often the case during rush hour.

Moreover, since it now takes noticeably longer for your SmarTrip to register, you can easily do this over and over again with plausible deniability on the off chance that a station manager or Transit cop stops you. You can now go through the whole motion of putting your wallet to the SmarTrip sensor, with the SmarTrip in it, and skip on through, secure in the knowledge that a fare won't be deducted because you didn't keep it on target for the required 2 seconds (or whatever the new duration is).

by Dizzy on Aug 25, 2010 10:15 pm • linkreport

@JCM

Thank you! You're exactly right.

Also, why does it make sense to allow a rider to go negative at the faregate, only to be refused exit at the parking facility? This causes major traffic jams at parking exit plazas. The rider now has to back their vehicle up, park their car again, re-enter the station and do what JCM suggested in the first place. Only select stations have credit card processors at the exit plazas and those that do only have one lane accepting credit cards.

Just make sure you put enough money on your SmarTrip to get through the system. I don't see what the gripe is here.

K

by Kaleel on Aug 25, 2010 11:22 pm • linkreport

Most machines now are smarttrip only, the exitfare machines have them, however there is no logo, just a white circle.

by ARM on Aug 25, 2010 11:23 pm • linkreport

All the exit fare machines have smarTrip targets on them, though I'm not sure if they are hooked up. It was part of federal grant/stimulus or something to upgrade all the targets and add them to exit fare machines.

The one benefit of going negative is that every trip has three different fare levels, and that can get confusing or time consuming. Going negative allows you some buffer. (or when it miscalculates a transfer from the circulator)

Alternatively, I think most frequent riders will just keep more money on their card. Most of us (especially those with smartrip cards) do not buy single fare anyway.

by nowisthetime on Aug 26, 2010 12:23 am • linkreport

@Rob:

Charge a penalty for allowing your SmarTrip balance to go into the negative?

Why are you giving WMATA such an idea?!

:)

by Dustin on Aug 26, 2010 12:39 am • linkreport

I think this is probably an OK change to implement, eventually, but:

1. Why was there no public discussion in advance? Why is there no justification for the change (with evidence)?
2. Metro should have implemented automatic refills (like EZ Pass), and refills online, first.
3. All Metro exitfare machines need to accept credit/debit.
4. It would probably be less disruptive to prevent riders from entering the system without a minimum fare. Then they still have access to fare machines that accept plastic, rather than being trapped inside.

by Gavin on Aug 26, 2010 1:10 am • linkreport

Going with the earlier comment by another Chris, the low income claim seems really contrived to me: the amount in question is only 1-2 trips and it seems rather expensive to spend money changing purchasing systems all over the city, putting up signs everywhere advertising the change and changing the smartrip readers on behalf of the small group of riders who can't afford to ride (or lose their cards at very high rates). Wouldn't it have been a lot easier just to have a low-income assistance service hand out smarttrip cards?

by Chris Adams on Aug 26, 2010 8:04 am • linkreport

Is this really worthy of debate.

If you don't have cash, you don't ride.

by Redline SOS on Aug 26, 2010 8:40 am • linkreport

Interesting discussion. When I first heard, I was upset, but the more I read about the situation, the more I came to realize it's not that big of a deal. Metro tells us that addfare machines will be equipped with Smart Card readers to enable this policy to go into effect. So exiting will be no more or less of a hassle than it is if you use a paper ticket that doesn't have enough money on it. Simple enough. My point of view has changed and now I realize that Smart Card users have gotten used to a perk. The perk is being taken away. Not such a big deal.
On the other hand, I think it's a perk that WMATA should consider keeping. Unless the addfare machines are changed to allow you to increase your balance beyond what is required, this new policy will require two trips to machines when your balance goes below zero, instead of just one as is the case now. Again, I guess that's just what paper ticket users face, but I would think that WMATA would want to increase throughput of people, not hold them up.

I don't think it's quite fair to frame this as an issue of being "adult" or not. It's sort of "holier than thou" to point out that you never let your balance get below zero so other people should also always be as conscientious as you. It's also just plain odd to sort of boast about the fact that you carry no cash with you. I'm tempted to say "do you want a medal or something?"

by Josh S on Aug 26, 2010 9:42 am • linkreport

...I was just replying to a previous comment inquiring about who goes cashless, though I do kind of want a medal.

by Bossi on Aug 26, 2010 9:45 am • linkreport

Does any other transit system on the planet allow riders to go into the negative on their passes, or to board with less than the minimum fare?

(And, yeah, an E-ZPass type system, and the ability to claim SmartBenefits online would pretty much set most complaints to rest, reduce lines at ticket machines, and make this whole fiasco go away. I'd recommend that the new rules not go into effect until this system is working.)

by andrew on Aug 26, 2010 9:49 am • linkreport

No, I'm not aware of any other system that allows riders to "go negative," but most of them allow you to have your credit/debit card automatically top up your balance when it runs low so this is largely a moot point. Metro should postpone this change until they have such a system up and running.

by Phil on Aug 26, 2010 9:59 am • linkreport

"My point of view has changed and now I realize that Smart Card users have gotten used to a perk."

I disagree with that. It wasn't a perk for the riders because Metro was too lazy/cheap/nearsighted to provide smart card exitfare machines. They had to allow a neg. balance or that awful Kingston Trio song would become relevant again.

Whoever said if it costs more to update the exitfare machines to allow smart card and credit than the (as-yet unpublished) money lost from those criminal masterminds who are making billions off of throwing away $2.50 smart cards w/ neg. balances then scrap it, was absolutely correct.

This sounds like more Metro madness. More costs, more expenses, less budget, and less services-- a business model Madoff would be proud of.

by horseydeucey on Aug 26, 2010 10:02 am • linkreport

in all fairness, no subway system that I'm aware of charges people based on how far they're going and at what time they are traveling.

I think the point is that this is something that was unnecessarily taken away and, in turn, we're given BS reasons for making the change. Frustration comes from the fact that they should be making changes to improve service, safety and customer service. This change does none of those things and we have yet to see any changes that DO effect service, safety and customer service to accompany higher fares. I think people would be less frustrated over this is wmata would make changes that MATTER, rather than spending time and money (to change the exit fare gates) to fix things that are completely inconsequential to the three main (and, in my opinion critically important) criticisms of their system.

by Chris on Aug 26, 2010 10:04 am • linkreport

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.T.A.
I'm just waiting until the day that poor Charlie can't get off the Metro because he doesn't have cash to refill his smarttrip card, and rides forever below the streets of DC, with his wife passing him food through the doors at the stops.

by Eliza on Aug 26, 2010 10:07 am • linkreport

No food on Metro! ...though getting arrested would certainly be one way out.

by Bossi on Aug 26, 2010 10:09 am • linkreport

Let's all remember that this is WMATA we are dealing with. The ability to have a negative balance originated in order to allow WMATA to avoid re-doing all the ExitFare machines when the SmartTrip was introduced - any 'perk' to the rider was completely unplanned and incidental. Similarly, I am sure that the end of that perk was determined without much thought of the riders. Other than the petty-ness of it on WMATA's part (which is not something business people necessarily worry about), what concerns me most is the expense of revamping the ExitFare machines - what will that cost and will it really capture a positive amount of fares that would have otherwise been lost? Do we really have the cash on hand to make this change make sense?

(And I agree with those posters who feel that Metro should focus first on making sure the existing fare collection equipment is working properly - I am a bus commuter and would estimate that I ride free at least once every two weeks due to non-functioning fareboxes.)

by ZZinDC on Aug 26, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

Really!!! Those people who rant about how special they are for keeping cash on them, well you should receive a medal for your ancient ways. Those who ask, how do you pay for cab fare and restaurants...do they let you go into the negative....your response is....THEY TAKE CARDS!!!! I see that the issue appears have hit a nerve. Simply, make it convenient for people to add money via web, smart trip machines inside the gate etc and people would be less confrontational. It seems metro is asking for a fight given the lack of conveniences they are willing to make.

Now, let me bring up another issue. How many times do people actual look to see if they were charged correctly for their exit fare. I would bet less than 20% actually look to see if they were charged correctly. I have actually been overcharged 9 times in a given month. I would like to challenge people to actually monitor their charges. I know it may sound difficult, but keep in mind how many people use smart trip daily, how many times their software have been tampered with and you will see there is a margin for error. This could be in fact why some are going into the negative. I say, why does WMATA not create a system where you can look online and see what you were charged each time at each station. I fear then they would have to take accountability for their errors.

Food for thought!

by DCer10 on Aug 26, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport

SmartTrip Cards don't cost very much to make. The whole point of the $5 charge was to allow riders to have a $5 cushion. That is to say your true 0 balance is -$5.00 (Thus the SmarTrip Card was free). If negative balances are no longer available, then WMATA should issue a one-time $5 credit to those of us who purchased SmartTrip cards on the old system.

by Klops on Aug 26, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

@Klops:
SmarTrip cards cost $3.40, apparently. That means that WMATA will lose 90 cents on each card sold at $2.50.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 26, 2010 11:51 am • linkreport

Klops - Didn't you see the earlier bit about how they actually cost $3+ to make? (Is it true? Don't know....)

DCer10 - I actually didn't see anyone ranting about how special they were for keeping money on them. I did see those people getting frustrated with the "holier than thou" comments of those who don't and were incredulous that they should be expected to have a buck in their pocket.

Chris - BART, of course, charges based on distance. I believe most commuter rail systems (MARC, VRE, Amtrak, etc.) do. The concept is not new, it's not limited to WMATA, it's not worth complaining about. Metro was not intended to be a subway, a la NYC. It was intended to be more analogous to a commuter rail system. So distance-based pricing made sense.

by Josh S on Aug 26, 2010 12:03 pm • linkreport

@Josh S:
The primary word in Chris' comment is the conjunction and.

I am also unaware of any subway system which charges people based on how far they are going and what time they are traveling.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 26, 2010 12:07 pm • linkreport

And yet another WMATA decision where they only, and solely looked at their side of things. They do not even seem to have considered thinking about the practical implications of this decision for their customers. Let alone actually balance customer thoughts with their own motivations.

No wonder people are constantly pissed of with them.

by Jasper on Aug 26, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

Well, I don't carry cash, ever. So F WMATA. I'll just go out through the side gate and get the ride for free. If they think they can hold me in the station I'd like to see them try.

by James on Aug 26, 2010 1:36 pm • linkreport

These may be naive questions but -

Where is the Riders Advisory Council (I think that's the name) on issues like this? Does WAMTA even think to float ideas like this by them - or any kind of rider-based focus group - if only to hear reactions be able to prepare for them? Or, ideally, to find out if there are holes in the 'official' logic behind a proposal?

Does this Riders group even exist any more? Did it ever exist, or did I dream it up? If they do exist and are not used as a sounding board, what is the group's purpose?

by ZZinDC on Aug 26, 2010 4:56 pm • linkreport

The RAC did not get asked about this, and I think at the meeting next week some might be asking why not.

The RAC meets the first Wednesday of every month, including next Wednesday. All meetings are open to the public and there is an opportunity for public comment. The meetings start at 6:30 and are in the committee room at WMATA HQ, 600 5th St NW.

by David Alpert on Aug 26, 2010 5:00 pm • linkreport

@James, and all others talking of jumping the fare gates on exit:
You realize that if there is a system entry on your SmarTrip card, but no corresponding exit you will either have to get a station manager to fix your card the next time you try to enter or you can swipe an exit faregate before swiping the entry faregate and you would be charge the maximum fare. IÂ’m not sure if youÂ’d be allowed to add fare at the fare machines (outside the turnstiles) if you were still shown as being in the system. Either way any benefit that may have been gained is lost.
Is it really that big of a deal to know your balance? For everyone stating that they only see their balance when they swipe on the way in, what about the swipe on the way out? ThatÂ’s when I check my balance, and IÂ’ll add fare then if necessary (i.e. less than $5 on my card). That way I avoid missing a train because I was standing in line at the fare machines as well.

by James on Aug 26, 2010 8:30 pm • linkreport

@DCer
I never, ever check to see if I was charged correctly on my SmarTrip card (love how Metro saves the extra "T"--talk about efficiency!). In fact, I have to remember to look every now and again to see how much I have.
For that reason, I know I've gone negative in the past, because I've been denied entry on my next ride and wondered why until I noted the negative balance.

I am disturbed if what you say is true: that I may be being mischarged for my rides. To be honest, I don't even know how much my fares are anyway, so I wouldn't know if I were being charged correctly or not.

And if one is mischarged, how would one go about getting it corrected? If it's only 10 or 15 cents, then who would bother? Seems like a devious transit agency could extract a lot of money a little bit at a time that way.

by Steve O on Aug 27, 2010 12:24 am • linkreport

This, and almost every other [so-called] Smartrip articles makes a basic mistake and ignores part of the issue.

A) Smartrip cards are not permanent. They break, regularly.

B) When yours breaks, you are out not just the $5.00 {or $2.50} but also your balance on the card. For whatever excuses err reasons WMATA refuses to allow you to trade in a card at a sales window; be that JGB, Metro Center, wherever. If you do try, you'll be blown off.

C) So when [not "if"] your DumbCard card dies, and you need a new one to get home; you have to buy a new one, and put more money on it.

Contrast this to paper farecards. You *can* trade them in if they fail. You get a new card *on the spot*... You do NOT pay a premium, just the fare value. And you can buy one at every entrance to every station -- what a concept!

D) Now, if you want to mail in your dead DumbCard, in hopes you'll get credit... But Wait! First you need to register it, and thus your travels. Big Brother needs to know your Name/Address/Bank Account/DoB/DNA sample; because terrorists won't buy a paper farecard, after all..

E) An interesting Public Records request would be: how many dead cards are out there? And what's the total lost [to the riders; WMATA got paid..] value on them? You can define "dead card" as "not used in last 120 days..."

While doing your records request, ask how much money WMATA [i.e us...] forked over to pay for Cubix's lawsuit, and *why* WMATA pays for a supplier's problem.

by George on Aug 27, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

I was very sad to hear that Metro is going to require a positive balance on my SmartCard. I did, after all, pay $5 for the card, assuming that some of that would cover what's over the balance on the card itself. When I'm running late, it's great to know that you can get out w/o dealing with adding more money.

by Janet on Aug 27, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

I wish that Metro would replicate the EZ-Pass system and let us register a credit card with automatic addition when the "Smart" card reaches a certain balance. This would 1)Eliminate the requirement to have to check the balance each time you exit 2)Prevent the bother of having to add fare using the current cash only system 3)Add some float to Metro's cash on hand. The current proposal might stop abuse by a few but would cause extreme hardship to the vast majority of responsible riders who are being extremely inconvenienced.

by Spero on Aug 27, 2010 2:46 pm • linkreport

@ Goerge

Great Job but you forgot one

If your card breaks during the first part of a roundtrip you have to pay the extra 25 cents surcharge for the paper card then your regular fare on your return trip.

WMATA should put the smartrip vending machines in all stations or get some new Add Fare machines that they can sell them.

WMATA should be replacing all of there broken s**t I have got smartrip cards that were lemons and had to go through the bulls**t of registering the card though it stopped working after 3 days of purchase.

The cards should come with a warranty like other products.

The cards should be made of thicker plastic there is no reason it cant be done except someone being cheap.

by kk on Aug 27, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

It seems like a very expensive undertaking to put in Smartrip exitfare machines. How much do they lose on these negative balances, if anything? It's seldom somebody would have more than -$2.50 on there which is the cost of the card. And I know many people throw away smartrips with extra money on them all the time when they get a different job, get a car, or move out of town. This is really silly. Penny-wise and pound-foolish if you ask me. I'd be shocked if they could show they don't lose money on this proposition. Metro needs permanent funding and a new board. This is a 3-state area and the nation's capital!

by Matthew on Aug 28, 2010 5:59 pm • linkreport

Metro is scamming and short changing customers, plain and simple. I ride Metrobus, I know.

I can't remember all the times I've lost money on Metrobus after putting fare on my card via the fare machine, only to have the machine steal it - it wouldn't show on my card - I've been riding for several years I know how to use the machines. It happens too often to be a miscalibration issue. And no, registering your card doesn't guarantee you a refund, either.

How does allowing a negative value on the card help poor people? It doesn't. If you have negative value on your card you have to pay back that value in addition to the fare you're paying for your current trip. Making people payback all that sum at once isn't helping poor people. All the money Metro makes from this policy goes to Metro directly, I know because I was told so by a bus driver.

All buses include visible notices saying you cannot ride the bus if you don't pay your fare, yet somehow Metrobus drivers allow people to ride with negative values? Ride On doesn't allow anyone to ride with negative values on their cards. I don't know who these policies are helping, but it's definitely not poor people.

by Del on Nov 22, 2014 8:18 am • linkreport

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