Image by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

A program allowing Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and MARC riders to use Metro for free when the commuter rail systems are disrupted is coming to an end on June 30, the agencies involved say. The ‘Metro Option,’ which has provided a limited benefit to some riders for at least a decade, will be canceled with no definite plans for a replacement.

The Metro Option allows MARC or VRE riders to transfer to Metro at no cost to continue their trip into or out of the city when either commuter rail system is beset by delays, which happens about a few times per month. Riders can transfer between systems at a few stations including Franconia, Crystal City, L’Enfant, Rockville, and Silver Spring.

WMATA says it’s canceling the program due to the recent and ongoing changes to how station emergency gates are secured as part of the agency’s Fair Share program. The emergency swing gates at each station are being modified “in an effort to reduce fare-payment disputes, improve safety, and ensure that every rider is counted toward WMATA's funding grants,” the agency says. The gates will be magnetically secured and will include alarms to alert the station manager if they’re opened.

“As part of that effort, emergency gates are being returned to their original purpose: for emergency use only,” reads a release from Metro to riders.

Metro estimates all swing gate modifications, which would affect transferring VRE/MARC passengers, will be complete by next year (Fiscal Year 2019) with some modifications finishing earlier by July 2018. With the swing gates secured, all riders who formerly used the Metro Option will be required to tap in and out of the rail system with a SmarTrip card and pay the additional fare.

The Metro Option feels anachronistic, a holdover of the optimism formerly displayed by the rapid transit system. Dating back to at least 2008, if not before (Metro's Chief of Staff was unsure of exactly when it began), the program offers free Metro trips when commuter rail is disrupted due to mechanical issues, trees on the tracks, disabled freight trains, or other reasons. Metro calls it an “informal courtesy” extended by the agency to VRE/MARC riders which has been “carried forward over time.”

“VRE is committed to working with MARC and WMATA for a long-term, regional solution” to restore the Metro Option, VRE said in a press release issued on Monday.

The unknown cost of the program likely factors into Metro’s decision to end the Metro Option. “There was no process for Metro to properly track or seek reimbursement for the cost of these trips, nor any agreement between MARC/VRE and Metro to govern the program,” reads a notification message from WMATA.

Putting a program in place to allow discounts or free transfers between the three agencies is complicated by the different payment platforms used by each. MARC requires paper tickets, VRE allows for both paper and mobile ticketing, and Metro uses its SmarTrip program.

Ridership usage of the program was not readily available from Metro. When asked, VRE staff said they do not keep a count.

Beginning July 1, VRE and MARC customers who may have previously used the Metro Option will need to pay their own way with a SmarTrip card if they elect to transfer and use the rail system.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.