Photo by Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie on Flickr.

Spend any time in a Metro station and you’ll see them: Befuddled tourists, trying to decipher the fare table posted on the ticket vending machine.

Often, they know where they want to go, but Metro’s complicated format gives them three different choices on how they should pay. They have to refer to another table to figure out which one is correct. It’s akin to making tourists fill out a 1040 form just to buy a ticket. They may not even know exactly what time they’re going to take a return trip, which complicates purchasing round-trip fares.

This is the most visibly confusing part of our fare structure, which has three time periods, fares that vary based on distance, and surcharges for paying cash.

One way to simplify fares for tourists and people who don’t have SmarTrip cards would be to simply make a fixed fare, equal to the peak-of-the-peak fare, that applies all the time to paper farecards. With this, Metro could also eliminate of the paper farecard surcharge.

Such a move would not be without drawbacks. SmarTrip card usage is high for bus (78%) and rail (82%), but there are still barriers for people with disabilities and limited incomes that prevent them from using SmarTrip cards. Any move to reduce the discounts available on paper farecards should be implemented alongside improvements that allow everyone to use SmarTrip.

But a table with just one, instead of three, columns would simplify the system particularly for those visiting DC, who are very likely to buy paper farecards. Since everyone knows (or should know!) what station they’re going to, it makes the decision easy. You no longer need to know what time you’re going or returning. If you’re traveling during the peak of the peak, there’s even a small discount compared to today because the fare for paper and Smartrip are the same.

There’s still an incentive to get a Smartrip card, since they’re convenient and offer discounts for off-peak rides. They protect your balance and offer transfer discounts to buses throughout the region.

There are currently six different fares between any two stations. This change would reduce that to three (Peak of the Peak/Paper farecard, Regular, Reduced). Only one of these fares would actually be listed on the fare machines. That’s much simpler.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.