Metro's plastic SmarTrip cards will be even more important for transit riders starting July 1, when the agency begins charging $1 per trip for rail riders using paper farecards.
The current plastic farecards cost $5 a pop, not including fare, making them worthwhile if riders plan to take more than five trips on the rail system or 25 bus trips, given the 20-cent surcharge for cash bus payments.
But as soon as the fall, the cards could cost less.
Metro is running out of the plastic cards. The manufacturer stopped making them, and though the agency stockpiled as many as it could, it has only about 350,000 left. Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said the agency expects to run out late this fall.
Eventually, Metro is planning to move to a new payment system in which riders could use credit cards, government IDs or even their smartphones to pay for their rides directly.
But until then, the agency will need to fill the gap. Metro plans to introduce a new card early in the fall, Asato said. Riders should not notice any difference: They can continue to use their old cards and the new ones will work the same.
The new style card will cost Metro less, though, according to General Manager Richard Sarles.
"In order to pass these savings along to customers, and to further encourage riders to obtain and use SmarTrip cards, Metro plans to drop the cost that customers pay for the card," he wrote to the Riders' Advisory Council this month.
That could make a difference for riders who haven't switched to the plastic cards. Transit advocates have said that $5 is too expensive for some riders.
Metro riders may remember a similar promise to drop the cost in the past. In June 2010, the board decided to drop the price to $2.50 even though the cards cost Metro $3.40 each. But then, the agency decided against it, keeping the cost steady at $5.