- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

Metro Board members yesterday tentatively approved conversion to a cashless pay system at subway parking lots and garages by July 1 in a move to stop parking lot cashiers from stealing up to $1 million a year.

Metro officials, who have long contemplated the change, said a total changeover to its current card system, SmarTrip, would eliminate the need for its contract with Penn Parking, the company hired to manage Metro’s parking lots and garages.

An internal Metro audit accused Penn-contracted parking lot cashiers of stealing $500,000 to $1 million a year from cash payments made at parking lots and garages.

“We understand that parking is not our core business,” said Richard A. White, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “We also understand that we do not want to be handling cash.”

The controversy comes amid proposals for the second increase in rail and bus fares in two years. Metro is attempting to cut almost $47 million from its fiscal 2005 budget to erase a deficit of $28.8 million to $36 million, depending on the subsidies provided by local jurisdictions.

Under the proposals, peak-hour and off-peak base rail fares would increase 15 cents. Bus fares would go to $1.35, an increase of 15 cents. Daily parking would go up 25 cents to $1, and the monthly parking spot reservation fees would rise by $10.

The automated system would require parking fee payments from 9 a.m. until closing on weekdays, while weekends would remain free. Parking at Metro-operated lots currently is free on weekends and federal holidays, and fees are collected weekdays upon exit between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.

The expansion of payment hours is expected to generate an additional $2.5 million for the fiscal 2005 operating budget. Metro estimates it loses $1 million annually by restricting collection times.

Board member David A. Catania, an at-large Republican on the D.C. Council, expressed concern that the change would not completely end theft and discrepancies. He urged fellow board members to consider all available options before making a rash decision.

“No sooner than one mechanism is presented, its countermechanism is [introduced],” Mr. Catania said. “There’s ways to get around the system.”

“[The change] moves us along faster to a point where we wanted to be in the first place,” board Vice Chairman Gladys W. Mack said.

Speculation about the amount of missing funds will continue, but will dissipate once the organization regains public confidence, she said.

Officials said approximately 71 percent of parking Metro customers currently use SmarTrip cards. The conversion will require Metro to install additional SmarTrip-operated fare gates and SmarTrip vending machines in its parking garages for customers to use prior to moving to the cashless system.

Penn Parking President Lisa Renshaw said Metro had been adequately warned for several years of possible employee theft by Penn employees.

“Penn Parking has made many efforts over the years to get WMATA’s Parking Office to focus on the problem of theft and the lack of equipment that could identify and control that very theft,” Miss Renshaw said.

She said that Penn would fight Metro if the transit company attempted to terminate the contract. “With no help from WMATA, [Penn] has made efforts at its own expense to curb loss.”

Metro officials say new equipment is being installed and that Penn is ultimately responsible for handling employee theft.

Metro’s contract with Penn pays the parking company $3.1 million annually. Metro can opt out of the contract in September 2005.

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