No Paper Transfers: New Hardship For Poor DC Area Residents

December 20, 2008

It’s not always obvious when budgets are balanced on the backs of the poor. Take, for example, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s decision to eliminate paper transfers.

Following the lead of Boston and Chicago, WMATA has announced that, as of January 4, it will no longer provide paper transfers. Riders will have to use a SmarTrip card to transfer from one bus to another for free or from a train to a bus at a discount.

WMATA says that eliminating paper transfers will save the system money, reduce assaults on bus drivers and minimize fraud and abuse, i.e., selling or giving transfers to other riders. Blogger Michael Perkins notes that the change will also raise revenues because some people won’t get SmarTrip cards and, therefore, pay more.

Local social service agencies have raised concerns about the impacts on their clients. An op-ed in the Washington Post explains the problem: Nonprofit social service agencies give their clients tokens so they can get to other services and to job interviews. The agencies can’t afford to provide SmarTrip cards, mainly because they’re likely to be stolen or lost.

So the agencies will have to provide two tokens, at double the cost, to cover a trip that requires a transfer–as many do. With their limited budgets, some may not be able to continue providing transporation assistance. As the op-ed authors say, this could ultimately increase city costs.

A recent letter to WMATA from the Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations (COHHO) ¬†seconds these concerns. It also identifies additional problems–notably, challenges for people with disabilities.

As Bread for the City blogger Greg Bloom points out, eliminating paper transfers¬†will have an impact on all the area’s poorest people. A SmarTrip card costs a minimum of $10, half of which is for the card itself. This means that residents will have to pony up $10 to avoid paying double or more for a bus trip and that they’ll be out $5 every time they have to replace a card.

WMATA is grappling with a serious budget shortfall. So it needs to control costs and increase revenues. But this doesn’t mean it should ignore its obligations to serve the public interest. It has thus far just dug in its heels.

But it might rethink the policy if enough D.C. area residents speak out. You can e-mail members of the Board of Directors through the WMATA website or comment during one of the Board’s monthly meetings.