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Metro to reduce SmarTrip price, start customer service push

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Local,DC,Maryland,Virginia,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metro is planning to effectively drop the cost of SmarTrip cards to $2 starting Sept. 1, one of multiple improvements for riders, the agency announced Monday.

Riders will be able to get $3 rebates on the $5 plastic farecards when they register the cards online starting in September.

The transit agency also said it will retrain 1,000 station managers and bus operators by the end of the year, as one of some 50 steps to improve customer service while the agency continues a massive rebuilding campaign that delays and frustrates riders. Metro said it plans to finish adding recording cameras to all buses by next month, enhance lighting at 14 stations within a year and eventually add flat-screen monitors at station kiosks to give service updates.

Time line for SmarTrip changes
Monday: Riders can transfer up to $20, instead of $7 or less, from paper farecards to SmarTrip cards at any Metro vending machine.
July 1:
• Riders can load $14 one-day rail passes or 28-day passes onto their SmarTrip cards.
• SmarTrip card vending machines will be available at the 10 stations that sell the most paper farecards and don't already have sales offices: Foggy Bottom-GWU, Dupont Circle, Union Station, Smithsonian, Rosslyn, Pentagon City, Farragut West, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Vienna/Fairfax-GMU and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Sept. 1:
• Rebate program for registered cards begins, with cards effectively costing $2 each.
• SmarTrip vending machines will be available at all remaining stations.
Late Sept.: Riders will be able to automatically reload money onto their cards if the balance drops below levels set by riders.
June 2013: Metro plans to launch a mobile application so riders can manage their accounts from their phones.
December 2013: Riders will be able to add fare via credit or debit cards at exit fare machines, meaning they will no longer need small bills and change.
January 2014: Metro will no longer allow riders' card balances to drop below zero, so riders must reload at exit fare machines.
Early 2014: Riders will be able to buy empty SmarTrip cards for about $1.

The agency is making the changes to SmarTrip cards not just as a rider perk, but also to encourage more riders to use the plastic cards instead of paper farecards or cash payments on buses, which cost the agency more in time and money.

The cheaper cards is one of the carrots Metro is offering to encourage holdouts to make the switch, but it is also wielding sticks: Riders who use paper farecards on the rail system will pay a $1 surcharge per trip starting July 1. Bus riders will continue to pay 20 cents extra for every bus trip paid with cash and lose out on transfer discounts when switching between buses and trains.

As The Washington Examiner reported last month, the agency will run out of its current model of SmarTrip cards in the fall and will get a new model. The new version is cheaper for Metro, so General Manager Richard Sarles had said he wanted to pass along the savings to riders.

The agency is even studying whether it will let riders use SmartBenefits, the federal transit benefits, to buy rail and bus passes.

By early 2014, Metro said it should be able to sell the cards for about $1, according to a presentation for the Board of Directors. But first it needs to make other changes such as eliminating the ability of cards to carry a negative balance, so riders cannot game the system.

In 2014 or later, the agency said it would like to discontinue all paper farecards.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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