The Metro was overflowing with Caps jerseys on Thursday night. Image by the author.

Capitals winger TJ Oshie rode Metro to game four of the Stanley Cup finals on Monday, like he did for game three over the weekend. Just like everyday riders sometimes find, his SmarTrip didn’t have enough funds to cover the fare.

When he tried to exit through the fare gate, Oshie’s farecard was 35 cents short of what he needed, Twitter user @CDLori said. Metro staff reportedly let him exit anyway.

“I owe you guys. Thank you,” Oshie said to Metro personnel as a man in a station manager uniform opened the fare gate for him, according to video uploaded by Twitter user @VicBruni.

The transit system congratulated Oshie for the game four victory:

DC has been gripped with Caps fever on its way to winning the championship, and likely few begrudge waving the hockey star through at a busy station. But he’s not the only rider to come up short on fare.

Here’s why Metro’s fare recovery matters

Right now Metro is prioritizing fare recovery, which is the portion of the system’s costs that is paid by riders. The approach is part of an effort to reduce lost revenue and assaults on transit workers. Their initiative includes a zero tolerance police response to fare evasion that’s intended to deter would-be fare cheats.

Fare recovery is important for WMATA because the system relies on the revenue to pay operating expenses, Matt’ Johnson explained. If fare recovery falls too far short of expenses, then the system may react by cutting service, creating challenges for riders.

Coming up short on fare is a problem many riders have encountered

Critics say the crackdown is disproportionately administered in a way that hurts racial minorities and lower-income riders for something that happens to almost all customers at one time or another.

“It just goes to show that even someone with a multi-million dollar annual salary can find themselves in a situation where they’re trying to get somewhere on the Metro and they fall up short,” Nassim Moshiree, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, told me.

“It’s absurd to think that [Oshie] would be stopped by Metro police, but unfortunately that’s the reality for many DC residents,” Moshiree said. “Often, poor black and brown residents don’t get the benefit of the doubt when they don’t have 35 cents.”

Moshiree noted a particularly jarring example: Metro Transit Police in February arrested Diamond Rust at the Southern Avenue station, allegedly slamming her to the ground in the process. Rust needed 12 stitches for her mouth and experienced four broken teeth, a busted face, and a fractured knee, Channel 9 reported. She was charged with fare evasion and resisting arrest.

The ACLU supports legislation in the DC Council that would decriminalize fare evasion. It would cut the maximum fine from $300 to $100 and remove jail time from the list of possible punishments. DC law currently allows imprisonment up to 10 days.

The council’s judiciary and public safety committee held a hearing on the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act in October. It hasn’t taken further action.

Image by Victoria Pickering licensed under Creative Commons.

This is what should happen in a fare shortfall situation, according to one observer

Nobody is suggesting that Oshie committed fare evasion. In @VicBruni’s video, a Metro Transit Police officer can be seen standing a few feet from Oshie and the station manager who opened the fare gate for him, quietly watching without intervening.

“What happened in this situation is what should happen, but it’s not what happens most of the time,” Moshiree said.

In January, Metro stopped letting riders incur a negative SmarTrip balance upon exiting the system. A rider couldn’t enter again without adding enough funds to eliminate the negative balance. Now a farecad with insufficient funds won’t open the exit gate, and the rider can exit only by adding value with an exit fare machine inside the system that only takes cash or by eliciting the sympathy of a station manager or police officer.

“If someone doesn’t have any cash on them, they’re really at the mercy of the Metro employee or Metro police,” Moshiree said.

I called WMATA and the Transit Police Department to ask whether there are any guidelines for determining how to handle a passenger whose farecard doesn’t have enough funds to open the exit gate. I also asked a Capitals spokesman whether the team covers players’ fares, but nobody got back to me by deadline.

At least some of WMATA’s staff watched the title-winning game.

Jon Steingart is a Ward 1 resident who earned his law degree at the University of the District of Columbia and his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland. A licensed attorney, he works as a journalist covering litigation and policy in the field of labor and employment law.