Photo by pthread1981 on Flickr.

The WMATA Board voted to “table” any decision on reducing the price of SmarTrips and allowing negative balances, which essentially means SmarTrips will stay at $5 for now, but the issue isn’t completely resolved.

A few months ago, the Board voted to ask for the SmarTrip price to decline to $2.50. As we’ve by now covered ad nauseam, that was originally based on information that SmarTrips only cost $1, but it later turned out they cost $3.40.

WMATA staff realized people could also game the system by paying for a $5 fare with a $2.50 card, going negative, and throwing the card away. They initially suggested eliminating the ability to go negative, but rider outrage stopped that idea. Untangling the complex set of possible solutions has proved quite thorny.

Staff suggested option G, simply selling all cards with at least $2.50 in value. However, federal member Mort Downey and Board chair Peter Benjamin pointed out that riders could still cheat, only every other trip instead of every trip. Someone could buy a card for $5 with $2.50 of fare, take a $2.50 trip draining the balance to $0, and finally take a second trip for $5 ending up at -$5 and extracting $7.50 of trips for only $5.

Based on the discussion, it sounded like the staff member analyzing the SmarTrip options didn’t entirely understand this. He said that people could do this today, but they can’t, because they’ve already invested $5 in the card.

On the other hand, I’ve previously argued that the abuse won’t be so great given the inconvenience. Having to buy a SmarTrip every other trip (or stockpile a bunch) and then take two trips of different sizes does reduce the ease of cheating. Metro could simply monitor the situation and take action if need be. However, Benjamin also asserted that it will be hard to reverse the price drop if there turns out to be widespread cheating.

Board member and DC Councilmember Jim Graham made what now seems the most sensible solution: just keep the price at $5. Most commenters here in our multiple threads have also preferred this option.

However, the other members of the Finance and Administration Committee weren’t ready to reverse their earlier decision. Fairfax’s Jeff McKay noted that part of the goal of reducing the SmarTrip price was to get more SmarTrips in the hands of bus riders to speed bus boarding.

Benjamin was strongly pushing Option H, which would lower the cost of the card to $4 but require a minimum fare to enter. He argued that WMATA should “give the riders something” in a SmarTrip price reduction, but still avoid the potential for gaming.

These are worthy goals, but switching to Option H doesn’t really give riders much and brings costs on Metro. It will require reprogramming the fare gates, at some cost. Meanwhile, a rider can’t do anything they can’t today.

Right now, you can buy a SmarTrip for $5 and get on a train right away. Under H, you would have to pay $4 and then add $1.10 or more to the card. That still forces you to pay $5 (actually $5.10 under this system) before you can get on a train, but now you have to take two steps. It succeeds in lowering the official cost of SmarTrip without actually lowering the practical cost.

The one group that benefits from Option H is riders who want to buy a SmarTrip just to load a bus pass. They don’t need to go negative, and don’t need any preloaded fare; they just need the card for the bus pass.

But most of the debate and issues don’t involve bus pass users. Basically, as Graham noted, the Board made a decision on incorrect information, and is now tying itself in knots trying to deal with the consequences instead of looking fresh at the issue.

If the goal is to get more passes in the hands of bus riders, and to lower costs for low-income riders, then WMATA should solve this problem more directly and leave the SmarTrip price at $5. For example, expand the targeted giveaways of SmarTrips. Or how about offering a program where people can buy SmarTrips with preloaded bus passes (which cost $15) for only $17.50, or even just for $15, through social service organizations that serve needy populations.

Lowering the price of SmarTrips made sense if the cards just cost $1 and gaming the system wasn’t an issue. It’s turned out not to make sense. The Board should simply repeal its resolution to lower the cards to $2.50. Staff should then look at the actual goals, like helping lower-income riders and speeding bus boarding, and suggest ways to address those more simply and directly.

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.