Photo by WTL photos.

Recent revelations that Metro has again delayed SmarTrip upgrades by one year have sparked tough questions from many directions. The news took members of the Metro Board by surprise, and they are asking questions, including whether Metro really has to delay this upgrade. RAC Chair Diana Zinkl is pushing hard to get a presentation on SmarTrip and the delays at next week’s RAC meeting. I’ve also emailed questions to Metro.

We deserve to know why the promised upgrades were delayed another year, and whether it’s a contractor, Cubic, or Metro that was unable to handle both the IRS SmartBenefits change and these other upgrades at the same time. Metro should explain when they knew this delay would happen, and if they knew a while ago, why we are just finding out now, given that these IRS upgrades have been in the works for months.

Michael Perkins sent me this report from the Metro Inspector General in February 2008. According to the report, the SmarTrip system was delayed while Metro spent three years trying to decide whether to upgrade the SmarTrip system or continue making custom modifications to an out-of-date one.

In July 2003, Metro awarded a contract to Cubic to upgrade the SmarTrip system. But two moths later, Cubic told WMATA that they wanted to stop supporting the OS/2-based existing systems and upgrade SmarTrip to the next generation system, NextFare4. Metro ultimately decided to go with the newer system, but had to spend time evaluating and analyzing this new technology and making sure it would meet Metro’s needs.

That’s fine, but that process took three whole years, and a new contract wasn’t signed until August 2006. In the meantime, Cubic had to stop working on the contract. As a result of the delay, Metro had to pay $1.4 million in “delay claims” to another contractor, ERG, which was setting up a Regional Customer Service Center. According to the report, “Cubic representatives informed [the IG] that they believed their proposal to use NextFare4 distracted WMATA’s project team.”

The original contract scheduled the SmarTrip upgrades to be delivered in October 2004, plus a few months for Metro to test the upgrades and Cubic to fix any problems. As of the February 2008 report, the schedule called for delivery in October 2008. That later got bumped to October 2009, and last week, to late 2010.

The IG report talks about best practices in procurement to make sure contracts account for delays, specify milestones, and include penalties for contractors who go past the specified time (or change their systems midstream and saddle Metro with a tough choice). And it sounds like Cubic made things difficult by suggesting a pricey change right after Metro had spent months negotiating a contract. But three years to evaluate a system and negotiate a new one seems excessive.

From the riders’ point of view, there’s a simple issue here: these changes were supposed to be ready at the start of 2005. Now it looks like they’ll come in nearly six years behind schedule. That’s not acceptable, especially without communication to the public about what’s going on, why, and when this will finally get done.

Tagged: rac, smartrip, wmata

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.