- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

Nothing makes you appreciate the “good old days” of paying cash to park at Metro subway stations like the continuing fiasco with malfunctioning SmarTrip machines and assorted indignities commuters must now endure if they want to be able to take their cars home at night.

Readers may remember that in July (less than one month after Metro switched to the cashless system which forced customers to purchase the plastic cards in order to park at subway stations) Metrobosses realized they had failed to correctly estimate the demand for SmarTrip cards. So, the system gave riders a temporary reprieve and briefly switched back to cash. Unfortunately, however, the cards returned — bringing back all of the problems that typify the Brave New World of SmarTrip.

At the Shady Grove station in Maryland, for example, there are just two SmarTrip machines for the entire station. This means that, for any commuter who needs to purchase a card in the late afternoon, there will inevitably be lines — usually at least three or four customers deep. All of the customers invariably have SmarTrip machine-induced problems. They may, for example, only be carrying one-, ten- and twenty-dollar bills, and the machine may only accept five-dollar bills. But even if the machine is theoretically programmed to accept fives, it may not be programmed to accept any of the five-dollar bills you may have the misfortune to be carrying in your wallet that day.

Theoretically, you can get around this by using a credit card. But if you used that credit card earlier in the day, it may be impossible to use it to obtain a SmarTrip card utilizing these glorious machines. When machines take your money and fail to give you a SmarTrip card, you can get a receipt from telling you that the machine shorted you x-amount of dollars. Then it’s up to you to write, telephone or e-mail Metro to get back the $5.00 or so that you were ripped off. Good luck.

Then, there are scams like the “Twinbrook Hustle.” When you exit the Twinbrook station, you pull up to the machine, expecting to be charged the standard $4.00 fare (up considerably from the $3.25 you were paying to park three months ago.) You’re in for a nasty surprise — the fare to exit that station cost us a whopping $7.75 Wednesday night. Of course, there was not a human being in sight to complain to — only a sign written in impenetrable bureaucratese stating that the price to park for a day is $7.75.

Now, admittedly, the amount of the ripoff may not seem that great — especially if you’re pulling down the kind of salary that Metro General Manager Richard White and other senior Metrocrats are. But to commuters in more modest economic circumstances (i.e., virtually everyone), the SmarTrip foulups operate as an oppressive de facto surtax on anyone who parks at Metro stations. Add it all up — the surly, belligerent Metro employees; the cattle-car trains; SmarTrip; and malfunctioning escalators — and you have a subway system that’s evolving into an embarrassment. Metro needs a serious housecleaning.

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