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WMATA staff suggests "no 0-value sales" SmarTrip option

The WMATA Board will again discuss whether to drop the price of SmarTrip cards, and whether to allow negative balances, at its meeting tomorrow. Staff is recommending they either keep offering cards for $5 with $0 balance like today, or sell cards for $5 with a $2.50 balance.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The Board voted to drop the price of SmarTrips from $5 to $2.50 a few months ago, originally on incorrect information that the cards only cost WMATA $1 each. In truth, they cost $3.40.

When they went to implement the plan, staff realized that someone could buy a SmarTrip for $2.50 that had zero dollars in fare, enter the system, take a ride of $3-5, then throw the card out. Currently, rail fare gates let a SmarTrip user enter the system even with $0 on the card (but not negative), and exit with a negative balance.

After rider outcry against a plan to stop letting people go negative on their SmarTrips, staff devised six options, and at a RAC meeting I suggested a seventh:

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.

C: No negative. Don't allow people to exit the system with a negative balance. Riders would instead have to add money at the Addfare machines, which only take cash and require exact change.

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.

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.

G: Don't sell $0-balance cards. Instead of offering cards for $2.50 with a $0 balance for sale, offer a card that still costs $5 like today but comes with $2.50 of preloaded value instead of $0. For those who want a SmarTrip just to load the bus passes that will now work with SmarTrip, the sales offices would also offer a SmarTrip that comes just with a preloaded bus pass and no cash fare value.

H: A combination. Sell cards for $4 (and $0 balance), but require riders to load up the card with at least $1.10 to enter the system. Staff added this one based on the last Board meeting.

Based on feedback from riders and jurisdictional staff, staff are recommending either D or G. If the Board thinks its initial decision was too hasty, especially given that the cards don't cost $1 as they thought at the time, they can stick with the status quo.

If they feel it's important to lower the price of the SmarTrips, they can choose G. This would let lower income riders who only buy bus passes and don't benefit from the going-negative option pay less for a SmarTrip.

Which do you prefer?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Does the preloaded bus pass smartrip card cost $15 (same as pass) or pass price + smartrip card price.

If the preloaded smartrip w/ pass adds the price of the card + the pass it is a ripoff : if you only buy bus passes why should you be required to spend money ($2.50, 5.00, 10.00 etc) on a useless card

by kk on Oct 13, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

The preloaded pass will likely cost $17.50, but the card can be re-used and reloaded with another pass the following week for $15.00.

by Michael Perkins on Oct 13, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport

Thats a rip off compared to just $15.00 for the pass and no other required cost. What this would be doing is basically charging a service fee.

by kk on Oct 13, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

Knowing who the customers are is important.

One thing you left out that since this decision, we've learned we are running out of SmartTrip cards. Don't get me started on that. At least we know why they are so expensive -- they bought millions years ago and have been stockpiling them.

Combine that with the price of the cards, and the clear answer is to keep charging $5 for the cards, and not use them as poor people subsidies.

Also explains why WMATA never sold souvenir or special edition cards.

by charlie on Oct 13, 2010 4:53 pm • linkreport

You're right. Ever since the internet started charging for punctuation marks, Metro thinks they can charge us for everything too.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 13, 2010 4:53 pm • linkreport

The problem with A (kick the can down the road) is you still need to figure out what to do if there is actual abuse (and you need to figure out how to recognize whether there's abuse or not).

The problem with B, C, E, F, H is that they require reprogramming gates. There are a bunch of things that it would be better to have the gate programmers working on (virtual tunnels come immediately to mind).

The problem with G is it changes the sales office procedures.

By default D (back off a too hastily made commitment) looks best.

by jim on Oct 13, 2010 4:56 pm • linkreport

Metro has enough money problems, why drop the price of the card at all?

by Brian on Oct 13, 2010 5:03 pm • linkreport

The rebate option doesn't add up. If the card costs $3.40, why pre-load it with more than $1.60?

I propose (I) Sell $5 card preloaded with the average exit fare for a one way trip (assuming less than $1.60), require minimum exit fare for the system to enter, no negative balances, and upgrade the capability to add money while inside the gates. Upgrading the system isn't cheap though.

by OddNumber on Oct 13, 2010 5:22 pm • linkreport

D: keep everything the way it is today. (As I also commented when you ran the previous questionnaire on this topic, which is how I discovered your site. I can't think of another site on the Internet that has done such a good job of covering these subjects.)

by District Native on Oct 13, 2010 5:30 pm • linkreport

Also explains why WMATA never sold souvenir or special edition cards.

@Charlie: Wrong. They have in fact done commemorative cards before. Both for the Nationals stadium and for the last inauguration.


WMATA's own announcement

by copperred on Oct 13, 2010 5:45 pm • linkreport

@ copperred; Great, so in 10 years they have managed two of them? Wow. Color me impressed.

Given the amount of junk tourists buy, you could probably make a million dollar a year selling WMATA swag.

And another two million of I hate WMATA swag to the locals...

by charlie on Oct 13, 2010 7:03 pm • linkreport

Ultimately, despite being an anti- status quo kind of person most of the time, I'm still with D as my top choice. I feel like reducing the base cost of SmarTrip cards is trivial as compared to the increasing fare costs.

I also feel like if low-income populations really are impacted by expensive farecards: there's a better way to target such socioeconomic demographics, specifically, rather than a blanket provision which risks losing the revenue provided by everyone else also now paying less.

Er, unless the cost of a program which deals out discounted/free SmartTrip cards to low income populations is more than just making it discounted for everyone... but I'd be dubious that would be the case when I believe there are several agencies which have already accumulated necessary data to identify such families/individuals.

by Bossi on Oct 13, 2010 10:42 pm • linkreport

I don't understand how WMATA feels that a "no 0-value sales" policy will prevent the problem. Let's say they sell all cards at $5 with a $2.50 pre-load. Use it once on a short trip, then use it again for a long trip and rack up a negative balance of more than $2.50, then throw it away and buy a new one. A cheat still has to use it a few times in order to game the system, but its gaming none-the-less. And its not like people who will be gaming the system won't be riding Metro: Anyone trying to cheat the system has to ride to gain any benefit.

As I've said before, lower the cost to $2.50, match the sale price to the max minimum balance, and require a minimum fare to enter. Or choose option D and don't muck with the price.

Problem is, lowering the smartrip card cost was one of Metro's "Title VI" remediation strategies for the fare increase. Hrm.

by Michael on Oct 14, 2010 9:32 am • linkreport

Last week I tried to add fare to my smarttrip card at the RI AVE station. I didn't have any cash and the machine wouldn't accept my credit card (not a problem w/my cc). I still had some fare left on the card so I was able to board (and exit) but I was very frustrated.

When will be able to add fare online?

by Tina on Oct 14, 2010 11:03 am • linkreport

'C' is a terrible alternative. As I just commented I road w/o cash last week. Would riders w/o cash be forced to beg or live in the terminal ala the man w/o a passport in the French airport?

by Tina on Oct 14, 2010 11:06 am • linkreport

if they are going to go with 'no negative' then they are going to have to find us a way to add-fare inside the metro. currently there is no add-fare available for smartrip holders inside the gates.

by carrie on Oct 15, 2010 4:03 pm • linkreport

My vote is for G with a side of E for at least rail. That is, entering rail, you must have the minimum rail fare or else go to the machine and load up.

Not sure which is the better policy for buses, requiring a minimum fare or not. On one hand, it's nice to let riders get to a rail station where they can load up with a credit card. On the other, because of the $6 express buses, if you only require a positive balance, you can game the system as Michael outlined above.

by LB on Oct 16, 2010 11:12 pm • linkreport

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