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SmarTrips staying $5 for now; keep it, help riders other ways

The WMATA Board voted to "table" any decision on reducing the price of SmarTrips and allowing negative balances, which essentially means SmarTrips will stay at $5 for now, but the issue isn't completely resolved.

Photo by pthread1981 on Flickr.

A few months ago, the Board voted to ask for the SmarTrip price to decline to $2.50. As we've by now covered ad nauseam, that was originally based on information that SmarTrips only cost $1, but it later turned out they cost $3.40.

WMATA staff realized people could also game the system by paying for a $5 fare with a $2.50 card, going negative, and throwing the card away. They initially suggested eliminating the ability to go negative, but rider outrage stopped that idea. Untangling the complex set of possible solutions has proved quite thorny.

Staff suggested option G, simply selling all cards with at least $2.50 in value. However, federal member Mort Downey and Board chair Peter Benjamin pointed out that riders could still cheat, only every other trip instead of every trip. Someone could buy a card for $5 with $2.50 of fare, take a $2.50 trip draining the balance to $0, and finally take a second trip for $5 ending up at -$5 and extracting $7.50 of trips for only $5.

Based on the discussion, it sounded like the staff member analyzing the SmarTrip options didn't entirely understand this. He said that people could do this today, but they can't, because they've already invested $5 in the card.

On the other hand, I've previously argued that the abuse won't be so great given the inconvenience. Having to buy a SmarTrip every other trip (or stockpile a bunch) and then take two trips of different sizes does reduce the ease of cheating. Metro could simply monitor the situation and take action if need be. However, Benjamin also asserted that it will be hard to reverse the price drop if there turns out to be widespread cheating.

Board member and DC Councilmember Jim Graham made what now seems the most sensible solution: just keep the price at $5. Most commenters here in our multiple threads have also preferred this option.

However, the other members of the Finance and Administration Committee weren't ready to reverse their earlier decision. Fairfax's Jeff McKay noted that part of the goal of reducing the SmarTrip price was to get more SmarTrips in the hands of bus riders to speed bus boarding.

Benjamin was strongly pushing Option H, which would lower the cost of the card to $4 but require a minimum fare to enter. He argued that WMATA should "give the riders something" in a SmarTrip price reduction, but still avoid the potential for gaming.

These are worthy goals, but switching to Option H doesn't really give riders much and brings costs on Metro. It will require reprogramming the fare gates, at some cost. Meanwhile, a rider can't do anything they can't today.

Right now, you can buy a SmarTrip for $5 and get on a train right away. Under H, you would have to pay $4 and then add $1.10 or more to the card. That still forces you to pay $5 (actually $5.10 under this system) before you can get on a train, but now you have to take two steps. It succeeds in lowering the official cost of SmarTrip without actually lowering the practical cost.

The one group that benefits from Option H is riders who want to buy a SmarTrip just to load a bus pass. They don't need to go negative, and don't need any preloaded fare; they just need the card for the bus pass.

But most of the debate and issues don't involve bus pass users. Basically, as Graham noted, the Board made a decision on incorrect information, and is now tying itself in knots trying to deal with the consequences instead of looking fresh at the issue.

If the goal is to get more passes in the hands of bus riders, and to lower costs for low-income riders, then WMATA should solve this problem more directly and leave the SmarTrip price at $5. For example, expand the targeted giveaways of SmarTrips. Or how about offering a program where people can buy SmarTrips with preloaded bus passes (which cost $15) for only $17.50, or even just for $15, through social service organizations that serve needy populations.

Lowering the price of SmarTrips made sense if the cards just cost $1 and gaming the system wasn't an issue. It's turned out not to make sense. The Board should simply repeal its resolution to lower the cards to $2.50. Staff should then look at the actual goals, like helping lower-income riders and speeding bus boarding, and suggest ways to address those more simply and directly.

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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Regarding Graham's comment that they made a decision based on wrong information, even now that they have all the right information they are still tied in knots trying to decide.

by Lou on Oct 14, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

But 13.56MHz RFID smartcards cost $0.25 from other vendors.

Why doesn't Metro buy smartcards from a cheaper source?

by Chris Combs on Oct 14, 2010 11:38 am • linkreport

They're tied in knots because people weigh the costs differently. Some want to make ST more "affordable"; others are concerned that making it more affordable will lead to waste or gaming.

by ah on Oct 14, 2010 11:47 am • linkreport


They will. WMATA's smartcards are proprietary, and predate the ISO 14443 (13.56 MHz) standard. For this reason, they will gradually be phased out in favor of readers and cards that conform to the new standard (presumably using the MIFARE system).

The transition should be seamless once all of the readers are updated, as most of the new ISO 14443 readers are also backwards-compatible with WMATA's Cubic Go-Cards (our current vendor).

Lots of other transit agencies got screwed by Cubic's proprietary system, so this debacle isn't exactly specific to DC.

I wonder if any of the newer/rehabbed faregates and vending machines are already using the new type of card readers, given that they've been around for a few years now.

Personally, I'd love to see a keyfob-sized SmarTrip, or a combination device that would allow me to rent a CaBi, or link the same card to other transit systems that use the same technology (sort of like how EZ-Passes now work on most of the competing systems around the country). It's not rocket science.

by andrew on Oct 14, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

@ Chris Combs; because I suspect WMATMA made a huge order for $3.50 and then forgot how much they paid. We know they have "several years" worth of smartrip cards stockpiled.

Glad to see sanity restored on this issue.

by charlie on Oct 14, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

The Smartrip is a 14443 Card operating at designated frequency. It does not however meet all requirements of the ISO Standards. No cards other than paper cards currently can approach anything 25 cents per card. Perhaps the chip component is 25 cents but the card has other parts as part of the assembly.

The implementation of Metrobus weekly passes on Smartrip and later introduction of rail passes will move additional adoption of Smartrip. Bus passes account for about 20% of bus trips. Taking the current 65% penetration of smartrip on bus and adding 20% now using passes will put smartrip use pretty high. That also doesn't allow for the effect of fare pricing differentials.

by Interested on Oct 14, 2010 12:15 pm • linkreport

Could the problem be solved by only allowing registered SmartTrip cards to go negative? Registration isn't that much of a hassle, but it's enough of one that most people wouldn't bother doing it to save $2.50.

by Erica on Oct 15, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

The BIG reason to lower the cost is we the riders are f***ed when [not if, when] the damn card dies. Not only do you have to buy a new card, but you lose any value on the card, too.

They could just exchange them at the Sales Offices, transferring the value but nope. Only if you love Big Brother and register the card, surrendering your name, address, DoB, DNA sample and sexual history, will they let MAIL the dead card back, and eventually they promise to send you a new one. Minus $5 of course.

Remember to smile toward the telescreen and chant on cue during the rally!

by Winston Smith on Oct 17, 2010 7:01 pm • linkreport

@Winston Smith: I believe Metro will transfer funds from one card registered to you to another such -- that is, if you already own and have registered a second card, you don't have to buy a new one to receive the funds from the defunct one. At least that's what they told me some months ago, but I never got around to following up.

by davidj on Oct 17, 2010 10:29 pm • linkreport

@winston smith: Metro has a privacy policy with respect to Smartrip data that's pretty robust. Registering your card doesn't include DNA or sexual partners list. Get a grip.

by Michael Perkins on Oct 17, 2010 11:23 pm • linkreport

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