Starting Monday, Jan. 8, Metro riders will no longer be permitted to have a negative balance on their SmarTrip cards after entering or leaving a station or bus with slightly less than the required fare.
WMATA Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike said that fare gates and bus fare boxes would stop allowing negative balances because the unpaid negative fares are costing Metro too much potential revenue.
"In an environment where every dollar counts, we are taking a common sense approach to ensure that Metro is properly collecting the value of the transportation it provides to reduce the demand on Metro customers and the region for additional funding," Anosike said on Nov. 24.
Since SmarTrip cards came into use, riders could complete a trip on the Metro or Metrobus with less than the proper fare. In the case of a 25-cent difference between the fare and the card's stored value, the rider’s card would then have a negative 25-cent balance. Come Monday, this will no longer be permitted.
While Metro officials acknowledge that most riders eventually pay back the negative balance on their SmarTrip cards during subsequent trips, there are many who don’t.
“Over the past 17 years, unresolved negative balances have added up to be worth about $25 million dollars,” officials said.
Metro officials are recommending all riders who use Metrorail or Metrobus make sure they have enough money on their SmarTrip cards to complete their trips before entering stations or boarding buses.
Officials said that after Monday, when riders attempt to exit a station without enough money on their cards, the fare gates would remain closed and riders will have to use ExitFare machines to add value to their SmarTrip cards.
Unlike the AddFare machines located outside fare gates, ExitFare machines only accept cash and coins, not credit cards.
Some riders said they are not enthusiastic about the end to negative fares. Germantown resident Nina Houste, age 40, said she would prefer not to have to stop to add fare when she is in a rush on her way to work in D.C.
“Allow people to have a negative fare so that people can get where they’re going,” said Houste. “I think that it’s a good thing.”
Houste said she learned of the change from the electronic sign when she entered a Red Line station Friday. She said that on occasions when she was in a hurry, but her card did not have enough money on it, the existing system allowed her to pay the missing fare at her convenience.
“It happened to me two or three times,” Houste said. “I was able to proceed in the negative balance and then come back in the evening and fill my card.”
WMATA spokesperson Ron Holzer said that based on past experiences, officials do not expect the change will cause significant problems within the system.
“The last time we made changes to [SmarTrip cards] everyone thought the world was going to explode and it didn’t,” Holzer said.
Holzer said riders who don’t have cash will still be able to pay their fares and exit.
“The way it is now, the station manager should allow them to go to the fare vender and add value, then allow them to go back through and exit [the faregates] properly,” Holzer said Tuesday.
Rockville resident Paul Gabbard said the inability to have a negative SmarTrip card balance has delayed him in the past because when he does not have cash, he must wait for a station manager to let him out to use an AddFare machine.
“I don’t carry cash, but then you have to (wait) for a station manager or someone else to let you out so you can put money on it,” Gabbard said Friday. “So it’s a waste of time.”
Gabbard believes riders should be allowed to have a negative fare up to $5, the cost to purchase a SmarTrip card.
“When I’ve had negative fares, it’s hard to find someone available to help,” he said.
Metro officials said riders concerned about their SmarTrip cards running low should visit the WMATA website and sign up for a service called “Auto Reload,” which automatically adds money to the user’s SmarTrip card anytime the balance dips below $10.
This could be problematic for infrequent Metro riders, however, as one must tap their SmarTrip card at either a fare gate, bus farebox or at a fare machine in a Metro station within 30 days of the "Auto Reload" feature adding money to their SmarTrip card, or the purchase will expire. For more information on Auto Reload, riders can visit the WMATA website at www.wmata.com/fares/smartrip/reload.cfm.