Riders Say SmarTrip Card Big Rip Off

Valencia Mohammed | 2/12/2009, 7:40 a.m.

Some commuters using the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority€s (WMATA) SmarTrip card claim it is not durable and the latest mass production is a rip off.

On Jan. 4, WMATA eliminated bus paper transfers in the District to implement a more efficient system that incorporated using an electronic farecard. Thousands of commuters were forced to adopt a paperless system. The authority said it was necessary to stop fraudulent use of paper transfers that cost the system millions over the years.

The authority basically incorporated three ways to use the no-transfer transit system cash, the electronic SmarTrip card or the weekly bus pass. Since its enforcement, the SmarTrip card is coming under fire and public hearings are being requested.
Elliott Mathis, 26, doesn€t have much money. He spends much of his time looking for work and going to school. With a limited income, Mathis saves every dime to make ends meet. According to Mathis, €The SmarTrip card is a scam,€ he exclaimed.

€I€ll never buy another SmarTrip card because it demagnetized too easily and took all the money I had on it. When I complained about it, a clerk asked me if it was registered online. Most Black people aren€t going to go online to register and they know it. We just want our money when the card fails to work properly,€ Mathis said.

Candace Smith, public relations officer, in the Office of Media Relations for WMATA said the SmarTrip cards are made of high quality, durable and flexible material to help protect the chip technology inside the card.

Unlike most credit cards or the paper fare card that contains a magnetic strip on its surface, SmarTrip cards use chip and antenna technology, which cannot be demagnetized. However, if the antenna is damaged or broken, the card won€t work. The reverse side of all SmarTrip cards state: "SmarTrip contains sensitive electronics. Do not bend, perforate or expose to extreme temperature.€

SmarTrip was introduced in 1999 and nearly 10 years later, more than three million cards have been used. According WMATA, SmarTrip is a permanent, rechargeable farecard. It's plastic, like a credit card, and is embedded with a special computer chip that keeps track of the value of the card.

Despite WMATA€s claim another commuter relates his experiences with the SmarTrip debit system.

€I€ve had four cards to crack on me. No matter what WMATA says, it just doesn€t make sense,€ said Derutter Jones, a northeast resident.

Jones spoke of numerous problems, including losing money. €I€ve lost money trying to load funds on the card because I failed to retouch the electronic system within 30 seconds. Not only has that been a problem but trying to keep a card that does not crack easily has been a challenge,€ Jones said. €Why should we keep mailing cards in when Metro knows there€s a problem?€

WMATA representatives assert there is a built in €inactivity timer€ to protect the money the customer is trying to add to the card if customers do not complete their transaction within 45 seconds or fail to cancel the transaction. If the customer hasn€t tapped the card within 45 seconds, the card is still loaded and the customer can finish getting the money on to the card at another SmarTrip card machine.

Monica Fenton complained of another problem many commuters experience. €WMATA said that we would be given three hours of free riding before charging another fee. However, the card seems to debit more than anticipated and as a commuter you have little recourse to bring attention to the problem,€ Fenton said.

According to several commuters, the card debits varying amounts when a transferring from rail to bus. As much as 85 cents some commuters complained. €That€s a 50 cents hike from the time when we had paper transfers when Metro said SmartTrip holders would be charged less,€ exclaimed Fenton. €It€s time for a public hearing.€

Metro has been a trailblazer when it comes to using SmarTrip technology. It was the first transit agency in the country to use widespread electronic fare card technology for fare payment.

Additionally, Metro is working to develop a Web application so customers can have money added to their cards directly from their bank accounts when the card dips below a certain limit. It would work like an EZ Pass.

Year Defective Card Rate
2006 4.2%
2007 1.9%
2008 1.4%

D.C. Councilman Michael Brown (I-At Large) was recently appointed to WMATA€s board. He has also heard complaints from his constituents. €Maybe we should have a public hearing to get a feel for what€s happening out there,€ said Brown.

Additional information about SmarTrip can be found at http://www.wmata.com/fares/smartrip/