SmarTrip upgrades including a self-service Web site to check your balance will be launching in July, according to a presentation to the WMATA Board for this Thursday.

The Web site will initially let riders register SmarTrip cards and see their balance and recent history.

In October, the Web site will add “autoload” capability, letting riders enter a credit card and having the system automatically refill SmarTrips when they get low, like E-ZPass.

All of this requires the NextFare 5 system, currently being installed. The system will replace a hodgepodge of systems that serve Metrorail, Metrobus, and regional partners. The incompatibility between those systems meant, among other things, that there couldn’t be a differential between cash and SmarTrip fares on rail, but was on bus. The new system will allow for that, which is part of the planned fare hike, the new “peak of the peak” to be possible in August, and more.

The new system will also allow for current unlimited passes to go onto SmarTrip cards. Today, Metro has passes, and the bus “flash pass” is very popular, but rail passes are not very well used. The “short rail” pass covers rides up to $2.65, but longer rides require using the Addfare machines, which only take cash, and don’t integrate with the funds on SmarTrip. If that pass starts to work with SmarTrip, more people are likely to buy it, and therefore Metro needs to formulate some recommendations.

According to federal Board member Mort Downey, when New York introduced the Metrocard and, for the first time, unlimited rides, ridership increased but total revenue did not decrease significantly. Many people started taking short trips on transit, especially on bus, which they might not otherwise have taken. If someone was traveling just a few blocks and a bus was coming their way, they might now hop on.

That’s a worthy objective and WMATA ought to formulate passes to encourage this. Many people ride Metro for their daily commute but little otherwise. Meanwhile, there’s excess capacity off-peak, during middays, evenings and weekends. If commuters paid for their commute costs but then got extra rides free, we could foster more of a “transit culture” where more people ride transit for discretionary trips. That could build general support for transit, especially buses and bus priority treatments.

In the presentation, staff promise to bring recommendations to the Board soon. Hopefully they will include an analysis of some of Michael’s ideas. Basically, the recommendation is this: let people choose a dollar value for their regular everyday commute, pay 10 times (for a week) or 40 times (for a month) that value, then get extra trips of equal or lesser value free. A related suggestion was to offer an incentive that if people bought 11 passes in a row, they got the 12th free.

Regardless of the details, the key is this: How do we evolve Metro from a primarily commute-only transit system to a commute-plus-discretionary trip transit system? As New York found, passes are a major factor.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.