Metro has announced they are moving forward with their plans to eliminate the free paper-to-bus transfers, as well as the discounted rail-to-bus transfers, beginning on January 4 of next year. Discounts aren’t going away, however – you just have to have a SmarTrip card to get it.
There’s a lot of flak hitting Metro for the decision, however. Riders groups in the area have mentioned a few concerns, namely that of time and money.
The time issue revolves around giving riders time to make the adjustment to the paperless system, despite the fact that Metro announced this plan back in 2007. The Riders’ Advisory Council wants Metro to hold off until the SmarTrip card system is upgraded to compute bus and rail pass fares, something that Metro itself has delayed until 2010. Ideally, paper transfers would exist alongside the SmarTrip program until such an upgrade is completed.*
The problem is that Metro has already stopped ordering the paper needed to print the passes. According to WMATA, the paper costs over $350,000 a year. About 25% of Metrobus rides involve the paper transfer.
The current plan by Metro has a Metrobus ride costing $1.25 by using the card; a transfer as recorded on the card reduces the cost to 35 cents. If using cash, the bus ride is $1.35. Transfer times will be extended from two to three hours and Metro will increase the number of places you can buy and reload SmarTrip cards, including Giant and Safeway stores.
Money has been the other concern, thanks to the perception that Metrobus riders can’t afford the cards or don’t want to use them. (I personally can’t see the logic here, since the cards only cost $10 – $5 for the card and $5 in fares. And the card is reusable indefinitely.) Metro’s already given 50,000 free cards to various social agencies so they can be distributed to low-income riders.
While part of the reason for the switch is to reduce operating costs, other reasons include “boarding inefficiency” (this is where people try to use invalid transfers or argue with the driver, which slows the bus down) and fraud. It’s common for passengers to share or sell transfers, which takes money from Metro’s pockets.
Officials simply point to other successful rail systems in other cities that have eliminated paper transfers, such as Chicago, where the city dropped the program in 2006 and revenues went up over $35 million. Chicago officials claim a large portion of that came from the elimination of fraud inherent in the paper system. And with WMATA having budgetary woes, I’m sure they’ll do what they can to make a little more dough.
So, like it or not, Metro’s becoming paperless. Whether the program’s a good or bad thing, well…that’s for you riders to decide.
*The RAC is meeting tonight to discuss the upgrade and transfer program. Council meetings are open to the public. Meetings are held the first Wednesday of each month from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the lobby level Meeting Room at Metro’s Headquarters located at 600 Fifth Street, NW. Call 202.962.2891 for more info.