Five years ago, WMATA and American University teamed up to provide student SmarTrip cards, the goal being to eventually offer discounted student fares. But the program never expanded past its pilot. Will rekindling the effort mean more students on Metro?

Image by the author.

During the pilot, American student ID information went on top of a blank SmarTrip card, allowing students to use the card on campus and on Metro. American and WMATA use the same companies to load money onto their cards, so combining wasn’t difficult.

Metro stations near colleges have higher off-peak ridership, an area where WMATA would be happy to boost numbers. Also, special college student passes have been successful in other public transportation systems, most notably in Chicago, where the Ventra UPass gives full-time students at over 40 schools in the area unlimited rides on CTA buses and trains.

The first effort ran into budget problems

The program started in 2010 with 20 of the combined cards going from the American student government to students and faculty. Eventually, the school distributed 300 cards. Combining the cards let AU students simplify their transit use by only having to load money onto one account, as well as see transit data and how much they were spending on fares.

The program’s goal was to eventually provide discounted student fares, and with the initial partnership working well, the student government started looking to make it happen.

Talks about discounted student fares and who would fund them began, but they didn’t go far. At the time, WMATA couldn’t give discounts to particular groups of customers due to its budget rules, meaning the AU student government would need to find a private source of funding for the discounts. Using the data gleaned from the pilot, the student government estimated the cost of the discounted fares to be around $300,000 a year. No one was willing to foot the bill, so the program never moved past the pilot phase.

WMATA and AU are giving it another try

The idea of special college passes has come up again in WMATA’s proposed FY 2017 budget, with AU once again working to pilot the program. If combined with some simple steps from universities, like putting bus route maps in freshman orientation packets, the move could greatly boost WMATA’s college student ridership.

College student passes with discounted fares would be an excellent way to incentivize public transit use for the estimated 225,000 college students in the DC region. WMATA needs more riders, even if they pay a discounted rate, to boost the bottom line. Colleges are a great place to find them.

Also, a renewed partnership will lead to fewer barriers to using Metro and Metrobus, which will benefit everyone. WMATA is even looking at providing combined SmarTrip and ID’s for MetroAccess patrons.

The new program might want to consider old ways

What’s on the table now is similar to the 2010 pilot program, but without the combined SmarTrip/ID aspect that made the 2010 program so useful. Instead, students will pay a monthly fee for unlimited rides rather than be able to add to their card as they go.

A college ID is a student’s key to their university, and a SmartTrip is a student’s key to the city— putting them together made a lot of sense. Having student Metro passes run through American ID’s would let students keep all their money in one place, and combining the two into one card would mean students would always have their SmarTrip on hand.

William Reckley is an American University alumnus with a degree in International Development. Originally from Frederick, MD, he has been interested in public transportation in DC since he first stepped foot on a Metro train with his dad when he was little.