- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Some savvy Metro riders apparently have figured out a way to beat the system, but the transit agency is catching up.

Metro yesterday said it is changing the payment policy at its parking lots and garages.

Starting March 14, drivers must have at least the required parking fee on their SmarTrip cards, or the gates won’t open. Instead, drivers will have to back up, park again and go into the station to add money to the card.

The reason for the change?

“It is possible at the present time to essentially work our fare system in such a way that you can make a profit and we can make a loss,” said Peter Benjamin, Metro’s chief financial officer. “And we noticed that people were starting to do that.”

Mr. Benjamin declined to give specifics, but noted “what they did was legal, it was proper, it was a way that you can work the system.”

Riders with paper fare cards who do not have enough money to exit the subway must add the difference to their cards before they are allowed out.

However, the add-fare machines do not work with SmarTrip cards, so those riders may leave the subway with a negative balance on their cards. A Metro spokesman said it is then possible to take a negative-balance SmarTrip card and exit the parking lot.

The plastic cards are sold in vending machines at some Metrorail stations. They cost $10, of which $5 is a fee and $5 can be used for train fare, bus fare or parking charges.

Metro did not have an exact number of people who were taking advantage of the system, but Mr. Benjamin said it was about 350 per day by December. He said monitoring of the system brought the problem to the attention of transit officials.

“It’s not a big deal, but we figured we’d cut it off before it became a big deal,” Mr. Benjamin said.

It’s another black eye for Metro’s parking operations. Last year, the cash-strapped transit agency ended its contract with Penn Parking, removed all the lot cashiers, and went to a SmarTrip-only system to pay for parking. Metro initially thought some cashiers might have been stealing up to $1 million per year, but Mr. Benjamin said yesterday the total loss is now thought to be between $300,000 and $400,000.

Mr. Benjamin said SmarTrip users still would be allowed to run a negative balance to leave the subway, although there are plans to put SmarTrip add-fare machines within the turnstiles.

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