New SmarTrip rules to make faregate delays even worse

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courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

Metro supremely buried the lede today in their press release announcing SmarTrip rule changes that will no longer allow SmarTrip balances to go negative.

First they butter you up with the nice news that SmarTrip cards will decrease in price from $5 to $2.50. Great, right? Except that somehow, in the universe Metro operates in, dropping the price of the cards requires them to implement new “technology” that prevents you from exiting the station if doing so would put your SmarTrip balance negative. Which is ridiculous- a significant part of the convenience value of SmarTrip cards is that you don’t have to fuss about your balance while you’re trying to get to work on time. This is particularly key now that we have peak-of-the-peak adding an additional level of complexity to fares.

But NOT TO FEAR, DC, Metro will also be upgrading the Exitfare machines with SmarTrip touch points so you can add additional fare before leaving the station. Except that’s not that helpful AT ALL because the Exitfare machines will remain cash-only.

So let’s review: Metro has recently made it more complicated to keep track of your actual fare at the time you enter the station by adding a peak-of-the-peak surcharge. They then strand SmarTrip users in the station if they happen to miscalculate and forget about that 20 cent charge instead of letting them make it up on their next SmarTrip refill. So not only are they asking SmarTrip users to radically change the habit that is probably what got them to use SmarTrip in the first place, they’re also asking them to make it a point to carry small amounts of cash with them at all times because they still won’t allow credit card SmarTrip refills inside the faregates.  And this is supposed to be made aaaaaall better because the SmarTrip card itself, the one you probably already have in your wallet, now costs $2.50 less, which won’t help you at all.

So what can we conclude from this? You should probably just go back to paper farecards. Thanks for nothing, WMATA.

We’ve asked WMATA for comment, and will let you know if they get back to us.

Tiffany Baxendell Bridge is an Internet enthusiast and an incurable smartass. When not heckling the neighborhood political scene on Twitter, she can be found goofing off with her ukulele, Bollywood dancing, or obsessing about cult TV. She is That Woman With the Baby In the Bar.

Tiffany lives in Brookland with her husband Tom, son Charlie, and two high-maintenance cats. Read why Tiffany loves DC.

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58 thoughts on “New SmarTrip rules to make faregate delays even worse

  1. Further: they are supposedly doing this to drop the price of SmarTrip cards.

    Which they are doing to “encourage adoption.”

    The same press release says that 85% of rail riders use SmarTrip and 67% of bus riders.


  2. I’d like to further add that this is to perfect time for you to make sure you have the stare down right for when someone’s card gets rejected. I believe it’s a one-eye clenched, look away, grit teeth look as they hit the censor. Also, let’s bring the annoying bus rejection sound, too, while we’re at it. That way everyone looks and gets to enjoy the back-up.

  3. This is so beyond stupid and it’s just going to cause (more) delays for everyone. I want to punch WMATA in the face right now.

  4. and this assumes that I can reload my DumbTrip with my DumbBenefits account which I usually can’t for at least 10 attempts after the funds have gone into my account…it goes through the whole process and then “TRANSACTION CANCELED”

  5. Um, I realize this is inconvenient, but if they didn’t change this they could/would lose up to $2.50 per card, plus the cost of making and selling the cards in the first place. Think about it: you buy a card for $2.50, add, oh, a nickel, and then enter a station to take a $5 trip. You then leave with a negative balance greater than the $2.55 you spent in the first place, throw the card away, and start over.

    What would you have them do instead?

  6. Whoa! Everybody simmer down now. This really isn’t that big of a deal. We have to manage balances on credit cards, debit cards, and a whole host of other things. Checking a SmarTrip card balance is neither difficult nor very time consuming.

    I think this is actually smart for Metro especially because we’ve all seen folks with negative balances get on a bus, hear the buzzing sound, and continue walking to their seats without even so much as a glimpse from the driver. Those free rides cost all of us.

    Plus, the statistics Don mentions above are from people who are already using transit. The encouragement is not for that 15% who are not using SmarTrip for for the thousands of others who are not even riding in the first place. I know that for people visiting from out of town, halving the cost of a SmarTrip card could be a nice enticement to purchase one for a weeklong stay, for example. And wouldn’t it be great not to get stuck behind a long line of tourists who are fumbling with paper cards?

    Let’s be reasonable about this and realize from both an economic and an environmental standpoint, SmarTrip is far superior to paper cards.

  7. For starters, fedward, I would have them install Exitfare machines that take credit cards so people who don’t carry cash don’t get stranded inside stations. Additionally, Emily, I would call checking your SmarTrip balance extraordinarily difficult if you are one of the many, many people for whom the online balance checking feature recently introduced never quite worked.

  8. Do smartrip users routinely go into negatives? I don’t think I even realized you could do that. I use smartrip because it is easier and faster than keeping up with paper farecards, not so I can float a negative balance. With all the very valid things wrong with WMATA, attacking this change seems to be vastly exaggerating what could be a minor inconvenience for some.

  9. SmarTrip balances can be checked at any kiosk, Metro turnstile, bus fare box, in addition to online (when it works), or by calling 888-SMARTRIP. Value can be added in the Metro rail stations, on buses, and also at CVS locations around the city. It’s not hard.

  10. First of all, @fedward, the $2.50 for the card doesn’t give you $2.50 for a fare – it’s the cost of the card itself (unless they changed that, too).

    Second of all, this is an incredibly stupid idea. I rely on being able to go negative on my card because often I’m in a hurry and I’ll be late for work if I have to stop and put money on my card at rush hour – plus refilling your card on the bus is the only thing more annoying than getting it rejected.

    Third of all, this really does make paper farecards WAY more attractive right now, especially since SmarTrips are no longer a time savings with the whole sensor/software issue.

    And I am totally one of those people you’d see begging strangers for a quarter just to get out of the station because I frequently don’t have cash. If you see me, be nice and lend me a dime?

  11. Karon, it’s pretty routine for riders to not notice that their SmarTrip needs to be refilled until the balance displayed on the fare gate as they enter the station is under 2 bucks or so. As it stands right now, you can finish your trip, go a little negative and then dump $20 all at once on your card on your way out of the station, or on your way in the next time. (At least, judging by the overwhelming Twitter reaction)

  12. Yes Emily, you can check the balance at a Metro turnstile, which activates the card as though you are going into the station, which means if you turn around, push your way back through the line, stand in another line to add to your card, and then try to get back into the station, you get the “See Station Manager” error message and the faregate doesn’t open. Using the bus box requires you to hold up the entire line behind you to refill, and 888-SMARTRIP works even less well than the already non-functional online feature. Just ask anyone who has actually tried it. So no, it is actually not that easy.

  13. I know it doesn’t give you $2.50 for a fare, which is why I pointed out that you have to add something — even just a nickel — before you can enter. But with the current rules, $5.00 gets you a card and the ability to go negative by (whaddya know) up to $5.00. This allowed you to enter the system with any positive balance on your card at all and take a trip out to the end of the system, exit with a negative balance, and then deal with it. Even if you threw away a card with a negative balance of exactly the maximum $5 you had paid $5 for the card in the first place and the only loss to WMATA was the overhead.

    With the card only costing $2.50 they have to change something or they potentially lose $2.50 in arbitrage on every card people just throw away with a negative $5 balance. If they change the limit to $2.50 to make it equal to the system they have now, then they’ll STILL need Smartrip-capable exit fare machines at every station for all the people who end up with negative balances greater than that. And if they have to do that at all, they might as well just give it the same rule they have for paper farecards.

    Blah blah whine first world problem me me blah.

  14. I get frustrated every time i tap in, notice a low balance, see that I have a 15 minute wait, but can’t reload my card. I’ll be glad if these massed up exit fare machines ever work and I can actually use them with a credit or debit card. Until then, I’ll just be angry.

  15. You can check your balance online now. Hello people, this is the 21st century the rest of us are living in.

  16. I always carry a positive balance and my SmartTrip card and carry 10 – 20 bucks in my wallet. I didn’t realize I was so out of the norm… wow.

  17. Paper fare cards are obnoxious to all of us SmarTrip users who aren’t whining about these changes. If you’re afraid of being late for work, leave earlier. Put a dollar in a hidden area of your wallet just in case and move on with your life.

  18. I go negative all the time upon leaving the station. It’s a matter of convenience; the stations are too busy in the morning to wait in line to reload my card. So if I’ve only got a few bucks left, I go negative and stop at the fare machine on the way out when the station is less crowded. One less thing to think about.

    Sure, I’ll adjust to the new rules. I park at Metro parking lots anyway, and you can’t go negative there, so it’s not a BIG DEAL. However, to take something away that was clearly seen as a benefit, and to do it with little to no fanfare, isn’t a good move.

  19. FAIL

    WMATA should leave the price at $5. This price makes sense in that if you exit with a negative balance, you havent cost WMATA anything as the max fare is around 5 bucks, right? Also, considering how unuseable the fare machines are, and how there are not enough of them and always 3 people who have never used one before in front of you in line, this is just going to slow everyone down.

    This seems about as stupid as the rule that if you try to exit a metro parking lot, and dont have enough money on your smart trip card to pay, and there happens to be an attendant at the gate, and you have both a credit card and cash, you can neither pay him directly, or add money to your card there and have to drive all the way back across the parking lot, park, go to a machine, add money, and come back to the gate. all because you were a buck or so under the parking fee

    Sure, we should all be responsible and keep on top of our balances, but it seems like WMATA doesnt understand its customers and goes out of its way to have policies that dont seem to have much benefit for them or the customer

  20. Tiffany – I guess I just look at it differently. I wouldn’t get in a taxi if I didn’t have the money to pay so why would I do that for a bus or the train. I put a month’s worth of fares on my smartcard at once just so I don’t have to worry about stuff like this. I realize that may not be an option for everyone but I’m still surprised at the reaction and the vocal number of people that routinely go negative.

  21. Fedward, my issue with your response is that it presumes there’s any reason to change the price at all. Consistency, they say? Of what, sucking?

    The current $5 price, $5 negative solves a problem. The change removes the solution but offers nothing but an inferior solution – turn around and add value (with cash).

    Emily seems to think that there is an incentive in the price drop by way that tourists would opt for one at $2.50 but not at $5.00. I don’t buy it, but if that’s the goal it’s not one that WMATA has stated.

    Further, if that’s the case, why isn’t there a fritos-machine-style SmartTrip dispenser? You want to increase adoption, sell the damned things w/o paperwork. Last time I bought some to have for visiting friends I had to exit the Pentagon City station, go upstairs to a commuter truck that isn’t always there, spend over 5 minutes making the purchase, and go back downstairs.

    The suggestion that these changes will do more with X dollars to increase adoption is inane.

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  23. @Don – I think tourists choosing to use it would be a nice byproduct, but I’m sure Metro would like to get the nearly third of bus riders to use SmarTrip and, like I said, encourage more people to ride who currently are not because of a lower barrier to the SmarTrip.

    I *definitely* agree with you that every station should have a SmarTrip dispensing machine! A lot of us never even travel on Metrorail as far as stations that offer parking.

  24. Karon – I wouldn’t get in a taxi without cash, but I don’t take a taxi twice a day, either. If I *did* take a taxi twice a day, I’d carry cash on me at all times. As it stands, I can get through 95% of my weekly activities without having cash on hand, so Metro suddenly requiring me to keep a dollar or so on me IS something fairly significant to adapt to. The rest of the world is moving toward a paperless money solution (including taxis, btw!); Metro is regressing in this area.

  25. Additional fact – the July 8th WMATA presentation to the board claims they spend $3.40 for a SmarTrip card. So this effort to change the price of cards to $2.50 will not only necessitate spending money to reprogram the turnstiles and retrofit SmarTrip onto Exit Fare machines but will do so IN THE SERVICE OF LOSING $0.90 PER CARD SOLD.

    You’ve got to spend money to LOSE money!

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  27. personally, I dont think it makes sense for tourists to use smart trip cards anyway, so why encourage them to with lower prices? If you travel to a new city for a few days, are you going to get a cheap paper card that costs nothing in addition to the fare, put enough money on it for your trip, and then toss it when you leave, or spend 2.50 or 5 bucks extra to get a smart trip card that will sit in a souvenier drawer or your extra back up wallet until you come back to DC 10 years later when the system has completely changed anyway? I have an extra smart trip card laying around somewhere for people visiting to use, but otherwise, Id never suggest someone get a smart trip if they will only use it once or twice in a lifetime. It just doesnt make sense

  28. Crap like this is why I bought a car. Well this and the weekend every line track work. No more metro for me.

  29. wow… all you self important people who don’t have a few minutes to add money to a card are being unreasonable.

    metro shouldn’t let anyone go in to the negative on their farecards, that’s just ridiculous that they did it in the first place.

  30. @Tim – the benefit for tourists is that if they’re savvy enough to purchase a SmarTrip card for $2.50 at the beginning of their visit, it pays for itself after just five rail-to-train or vice versa transfers, or after just two bus transfers within a two hour period. I think it would definitely be worth it to invest the $2.50 upfront for large groups or families that will be in the area for awhile. The savings could be significant.

  31. They can implement this change at the drop of a hat, but we STILL don’t have the capability to add value to SmarTrip accounts online, several years after it was supposed to be implemented.

  32. @Emily
    I guess that makes some sense, and also if they are driving to one of the commuter stations for to get on the metro and need to pay for parking. but, it just seems like tourists and occasional users are not the target audience of smart trip. there are at least two major metro user groups with different needs and it seemed like the old smart trip acknowledged that

  33. EmilyHaHa — yeah, those “rail-to-train transfers” are really useful. As for buses, tourists don’t ride city buses. Don’t be silly.

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  35. The real problem (for me) isn’t that I will no longer be allowed to go negative, it’s that I can’t pay with a credit card to get out of the station.

    I don’t ever really have cash on me at all and if I happen to have a buck or two, I usually end up giving it to the folks that ask me for spare change when I exit metro!

    just bad planning on wmata’s part again.

  36. I agree, talktotisha. If they were implementing credit card-accepting exitfare machines, this change would only be slightly inconvenient, as opposed to ridiculous.

  37. If we are trying to encourage people to use the metro, then cutting the cost of a metro card is going to work, especially only $2.50. When you consider the massive amount of price hikes recently, add the peak of the peak charge, and now the lack of convenience of being able to EXIT in the negative and pay on your return, when MAYBE you aren’t so rushed, why would anyone ride?

  38. It’s hard for me to take at face value any assertion that people who don’t care about saving at least $0.20 on EVERY. SINGLE. TRIP. are going to hit their tipping point over $2.50.

  39. Wow, @neff – I can’t believe you’ve never transferred from rail to train on the magenta line in Marginia. Duh! Anyhizz…I think you know what I meant.

    As for tourists not using buses…you need to ride more buses! That’s pretty much the only way my family gets around when they visit (I’m a mile from the nearest rail station) and in the summertime, especially, DC Circulator buses are chock full of tourists. And before everybody goes bonkers, I *know* Circulator is run by DDOT, but it uses the same SmarTrip card technology.

    I predict this change in SmarTrip policy has zero negative impact on Metro. Are those of us who already have our cards going to boycott or buy a car instead? I think not. Please see @Melody’s comments for further inspiration.

  40. This is an inconvenience, and it’s all just a byproduct of lowering the smarttrip card price. I’d rather it be $5 and be able to go into the red. If they are going to screw us, at least they could put credit card readers on the ext gate card refill machines. Anyone want to post the number or email for WMATA for this issue?

  41. I don’t get what folks are all upset about. I ride metro (bus and rail) every day. It takes literally no time to look at the screen on the bus or rail entry gate every time you enter to see what your balance is down to. You don’t even have to slow down to do it. If you notice y9ou are down to $10…add more money.

    Its just lazy to complain/whine/gripe about how Metro no longer lets you be clueless about your balance. Be responsible adults..check your balance and add more when it gets low…

    And get out of my way at the turnstile..I have enough money to get in and out. Don’t slow me down.

  42. “You can check your balance online now. Hello people, this is the 21st century the rest of us are living in.”

    Yes. Everyone will be going online to check the balance of their smartrip card before each trip. That is exactly what a million people a day plan to do instead of just getting on the damn train as usual.

    The defenses of this policy are idiotic.

    How many people are, really, going to go to CVS every other trip to buy a new card to avoid paying 35 cents or so when they go negative?

    Metro, of course, has not provided any information about whether or not this actually ever happens. Because, obviously, either they don’t know, or it doesn’t ever really happen.

    What does happen, though, is that Metro holds millions of dollars in pre-paid fares from ALL metro users who buy a card or charge their smart trip for more than a single trip. I assume, since they are so interested in fairness, they will be paying us interest now?

    Not to mention the millions of tourists who toss unused cards when they get home from their trip to DC.

    So Metro is basically willing to impose an extraordinary inconvenience on their best customers, without even knowing whether there’s a problem in the first place, and all the while they earn tons of cash from the fact that most people pre-pay for Metro.

    Awesome. Another boneheaded move. Can someone please put a professional in charge of this organization?

  43. “I predict this change in SmarTrip policy has zero negative impact on Metro. Are those of us who already have our cards going to boycott or buy a car instead? ”

    No, nobody will be “boycotting” metro. But if you don’t think that 5-10% of all Smart Trip users — which is 85% of all metro users — having to turn around and add fare when they exit every single time will be an “impact” then I guess you don’t use Metro when it’s busy very often.

  44. Jamie is right: you give Metro an interest free loan on the balance of your smart benefits until the moment you swipe your card to enter a station. This is a significant float of money for Metro that I am sure their accounting people are handling in a forthright fashion. Then, when you are -.15c you are immediately required to load your card to exit the station. Seen this way, Metro looks like an unscrupulous bank– we’ll give you nothing for your balance over the course of days, weeks, and months, but as soon as you have a negative balance, we will demand immediate payment or you are actually stranded. Metro has gone downhill violently in the four years since I started riding.

  45. Many times when I ride the bus, the SmarTrip reader isn’t displaying correctly, so I can’t see what my balance is.

    The other day, I checked my balance online but tha balance that it showed was higher than what I actually still had on the card.

    It’s not always convenient to go to CVS and reload, and no one is going to waste their time and money at CVS constantly buying a new card to save a dollar.

    Futhermore, what about low-income riders who are on a tight budget and can’t always travel with spare cash for Metro. Some people rely on the ability to go negative because they don’t have the available funds to reload their card until they enter the system later.

    Lastly, Metro’s job is not to make us all more fiscally responsible. Metro’s job is transport thousands of people daily in a convenient and efficient manner (at least, any good public transit system should). If more people are reloading before they enter, or as they try to leave, or as they board a bus, it will slow things down. Particularly because not all of the fare machines work all of the time (and how about those ones that display “No Bills”? That will be fun if an exit fare machine is down)

  46. One solution is for WMATA to join the rest of us in the 21st century (no, Lou, they’re not here yet) and allow automatic SmarTrip refills from a linked credit card without having to tap a physical machine. EZ-Pass manages to do this for toll roads. When your balance drops below some threshold ($5 or $10) your card is automatically reloaded with $20 or whatever amount you choose.

    The end goal should be for SmarTrip users never to need to use a machine in the station. Tap in and out at faregates, and manage everything else online.

  47. @Molly, that would make altogether too much sense.

    No, instead of taking this obvious step, or even taking a look to see if there is actually a problem to begin with, Metro would rather retrofit hundreds of exitfare machines to handle SmartTrip cards (cash only, of course!). And also add a two-second delay when swiping your card, along with the fare increase, when boarding metro.

    At Metro, the goal is to ensure that what used to be simple is now an ever-more-baffling, time-consuming ordeal. Why think of ways to remove steps from a process that a million people a day must use, when it’s just as much fun to add new ones?

  48. OK so lets say WMATA costs are 3.40 a card. I assume you have to have minimum fare on it to enter so I pay 2.50 for the card + 1.10 min fare. Metro at minimum just made 20c. The cost to transport a single person on the Metro is negligible. If I stupidly spend all day on the Metro riding back and forth Metro hasn’t lost $100. *The negative balance doesn’t represent an actual monetary loss to Metro it’s simply money they didn’t make.* The underlying premise for this change is flawed to begin with.
    Secondly if you want to get ppl to use SmartCards why would you remove an incentive to use them? If you’re promoting SmartCards you don’t want them to be a parity to paper cards, that’s stupid.

  49. Let me get this straight. Not only is metro introducing utterly incomprehensible new rules, making us all wait TWO EXTRA SECONDS EVERY TIME WE SWIPE ARE CARDS, and generally sucking altogether, now we can no longer run deficits on our cards????!? How am I going to run my dollar-saving racket now? I depended on my savings to buy food, now metro wants me to starve. Why can’t they be like any other service, and let people use it without paying??? I mean, after all, it’s not like stealing if you don’t physically take something: ITS SIMPLY MONEY THEY DIDNT MAKE!!! (as Jim so delightfully outlined)

    I cannot understand why Metro will not let us run deficits using their service. Lots of other places let you use them without paying. I eat at restaurants all the time and leave without paying. I leave a tip, so I don’t feel bad. We were able to run deficits before, so we should always be able to.