The WMATA Board will again discuss whether to drop the price of SmarTrip cards, and whether to allow negative balances, at its meeting tomorrow. Staff is recommending they either keep offering cards for $5 with $0 balance like today, or sell cards for $5 with a $2.50 balance.

The Board voted to drop the price of SmarTrips from $5 to $2.50 a few months ago, originally on incorrect information that the cards only cost WMATA $1 each. In truth, they cost $3.40.

When they went to implement the plan, staff realized that someone could buy a SmarTrip for $2.50 that had zero dollars in fare, enter the system, take a ride of $3-5, then throw the card out. Currently, rail fare gates let a SmarTrip user enter the system even with $0 on the card (but not negative), and exit with a negative balance.

After rider outcry against a plan to stop letting people go negative on their SmarTrips, staff devised six options, and at a RAC meeting I suggested a seventh:

A: Wait and see. Drop SmarTrips to $2.50 but don’t change the way any systems work. Track whether there is widespread abuse.

B: Rebate. Charge $5 for the card, but automatically give a $2.50 fare credit to the rider after they complete 2 trips. Basically, it’s like paying $5 and getting $2.50 of fare on the card, but you have to ride a couple of times first.

C: No negative. Don’t allow people to exit the system with a negative balance. Riders would instead have to add money at the Addfare machines, which only take cash and require exact change.

D: Don’t reduce the price. Keep everything the way it is today, with $5 SmarTrips.

E: Require a minimum fare to enter. Instead of letting a rider enter with $0 on their SmarTrip, require $1.10 or more.

F: Cap the negative balance at $2.50. The system could still let people go negative, but only to $2.50 in the hole. More than that and they’d need to use Exitfare.

G: Don’t sell $0-balance cards. Instead of offering cards for $2.50 with a $0 balance for sale, offer a card that still costs $5 like today but comes with $2.50 of preloaded value instead of $0. For those who want a SmarTrip just to load the bus passes that will now work with SmarTrip, the sales offices would also offer a SmarTrip that comes just with a preloaded bus pass and no cash fare value.

H: A combination. Sell cards for $4 (and $0 balance), but require riders to load up the card with at least $1.10 to enter the system. Staff added this one based on the last Board meeting.

Based on feedback from riders and jurisdictional staff, staff are recommending either D or G. If the Board thinks its initial decision was too hasty, especially given that the cards don’t cost $1 as they thought at the time, they can stick with the status quo.

If they feel it’s important to lower the price of the SmarTrips, they can choose G. This would let lower income riders who only buy bus passes and don’t benefit from the going-negative option pay less for a SmarTrip.

Which do you prefer?

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.