WMATA presents options for SmarTrip negative balances
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 followup garnered more praise. The WMATA Board will discuss the issue on September 16th.
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 the 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:
A: Wait and see. Drop SmarTrips to $2.50 but don't change the way any systems work. Track whether there is widespread abuse.
B: Rebate. Charge $5 for the card, but automatically give a $2.50 fare credit to the rider after they complete 2 trips. Basically, it's like paying $5 and getting $2.50 of fare on the card, but you have to ride a couple of times first.. This would require some small programming changes which they are researching.
C: No negative. This is the plan they suggested last week. It will require delaying until October so the Exitfare machines can be modified. They actually already have the SmarTrip technology installed, and won't cost WMATA much to reconfigure, but it will take a little time.
D: Don't reduce the price. Keep everything the way it is today, with $5 SmarTrips.
E: Require a minimum fare to enter. Instead of letting a rider enter with $0 on their SmarTrip, require $1.10 or more. That way, it's much harder to cheat. Since $1.10 plus $2.50 card cost is $3.60, only trips over $3.60 could result in a negative balance that costs WMATA if the rider throws away the card. Plus, someone who buys a card would have to put $1.10 on it to maximize cheating, which takes time and effort for little reward.
They estimate that lost revenue would be only $75,000 per month. This option would require some programming change and mean a small delay, probably until December.
F: Cap the negative balance at $2.50. The system could still let people go negative, but only to $2.50 in the hole. More than that and they'd need to use Exitfare. This means nobody can cheat, and most riders won't get stuck because many trips are less than $2.50 and most people who go negative start with some balance on their cards already. However, some people would need to use Exitfare. This would also require a delay until about December.
While I'm not sure I would pick this one, I suggested an option G: Sell all cards with minimum value. As it is, many cards at stores cost $10 for $5 of value, and many stores will simply start selling $7.50 cards for $10 instead. WMATA's old vending machines at stations with parking also can't handle different prices, so they plan to simply load them up with $7.50 cards and keep charging $10.
If all cards cost $5 and came with $2.50 of value, it would be difficult to cheat. If you purchased a card and then took a long trip, the most you could cheat is $1 on an airport bus, which is also possible under today's system. To cheat more, you would need to take more than one trip. This is very similar to option B, except you don't have to wait or take two trips first.
However, the primary purpose of the change was to reduce the barriers for riders with low incomes to get SmarTrips, since some apparently find the initial outlay of $5 to be an obstacle. Paying $5 but getting $2.50 in value could be better, since even if they got a $2.50 card with no value those riders would still have to load some money on at least before the second trip. But it still means that you need $5 right then and there to get a card.
I therefore lean toward options A (just drop the price), E (require some fare to enter), or F (only allow negative up to $2.50). If A, WMATA should pick a backup plan and know how quickly they can implement it. That way, if A does create excessive cheating, they could go right to the backup.
If I had to pick one, I'd say F. It's strictly better than C (no negative), except for the extra two-month delay and unless there's a substantially larger cost to modify the software to disallow negatives over $2.50 versus modifying it to disallow all negatives. But it eliminates the cheating opportunity while still allowing most riders to go negative in most circumstances.
What do you think? I'll compile your suggestions and send them to Ms. Kissal.
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