Metro began implementing its new SmarTrip card policy Monday, no longer permitting riders aboard the transit system’s trains and buses with a negative balance on their fare cards.
Previously, customers would be permitted to complete certain trips without sufficient funds on the SmarTrip card to pay the appropriate fare and pay the balance the next time they add value to their card. Now, Metro wants customers to pay before they leave.
Detractors say the new policy will affect Metro riders who cannot afford to keep a higher balance on their card or do not carry cash. Some groups have called the new policy misguided, saying it makes the transit system inaccessible to those who need it most.
The day the policy change took effect, Black Lives Matter D.C. (BLMDC), Save Our System (SOS) and No Justice No Pride (NJNP) held “Swipes on Us” outside of the Anacostia Metro station, where they distributed hundreds of free preloaded SmarTrip cards.
“If you live in D.C. and you ride the Metro you are bound to see someone being harassed by a Metro transit worker for the inability to pay,” said Tracye Redd, a leader of a branch of BLMDC related to civil disobedience. “Metro transit officers are here just to protect value and property, and they are not here to serve the people who ride the Metro.”
The organizers say the Metro needs a public dedicated funding source rather than “aggressive” punitive penalties that affect the city’s most vulnerable residents.
In recent years, Metro has ramped up its enforcement of fare evasion policies, reporting a 40 percent increase in fare evasion-related citations issued in 2016 from the previous year and a 125 percent jump in written warnings.
Skipping out on Metro fare in the District currently can result in up to 10 days imprisonment and $300 in fines.
In 2017, Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) introduced legislation that would decriminalize fare evasion within the Metro system, arguing that criminalizing riders would not make the transit system more equitable. White also said Metro’s heavy lobbying for public subsidies should encourage it to reconsider its fare evasion polices and use its enforcement resources to increase public safety.
Under the new policy, the fare gate will not open for Metrorail customers with negative balances on their SmarTrip card even if there is a valid pass on the card, and they will be directed to an Exitfare machine, which only accepts cash and coins, to load additional value. On Metrobus, the fare box will buzz for customers with less than $1.75 loaded onto their SmarTrip card and they will be required to add a sufficient amount in the form of cash or coins.
Even riders with valid daily, weekly, monthly or school passes will also be blocked from riding within the Metro system if they separately have a negative balance on the card.
The Swipes on Us event is part of a bigger campaign for Metro reform by SOS, which seeks expanded service, a flat fare within the system or fares based on income and a regional dedicated tax preferably using funds the city makes from real estate developers.
“I think our elected leaders should really be looking deeply at who the real fare evaders are, and be thinking strategically about how to get the money to fund Metro without putting it on those who can’t afford and are struggling to pay these high fares,” said Emmelia Talarico of SOS and NJNP.
In 2013, Metro changed policies to restrict negative balances to $1.50 for rail riders.
Last week less than one percent of customers traveling within the transit system last week did so with a negative balance, according to a Metro statement. They say though most people resolve negative balances the unresolved balances for the past 17 years total about $25 million, an amount they argue “could have been used to fund rail and bus service.”
“In an environment where every dollar counts, we are taking a common-sense approach to ensure that Metro is properly collecting the value of the transportation it provides in order to reduce the demand on Metro customers and the region for additional funding,” said Metro Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike.
Swipes on Us organizers say they will continue to mobilize citizens to push for changes in the Metro system.