Metro Smarttrip changes and government debt: Ironic to say the least

The government is $17 trillion in debt, but you can't have more than a $1.50 on your Smarttrip. Sounds about right. Photo: living-in-washingtondc.com

WASHINGTON, October 9, 2013 — As the United States nears default and bands of furloughed workers walk the streets of Washington like hordes of non-essential undead, the stench of hypocrisy is in the air. Thicker than normal, it hangs in the atmosphere like humidity, a rank cloud of terrible irony.

While the government is taxing and spending this country into oblivion, the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) will not let you pass out of their gates into the World beyond if your Smart Trip card has a negative balance of $1.50. In new rules which took effect on October 1st, the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority has reduced the price of a SmarTrip from $5 to $2, and it has decreased the negative balance you can carry on your card and still exit.


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So, what? Why can’t you as a responsible adult remember to put money on your card? Why don’t you act like a normal person and just keep a positive balance?

The problem is that the SmarTrip is meant to help regular Metro riders by giving them a little break when they go over their fare, but they can’t get back onto the Metro without paying off the balance and adding more to the card.

Another problem is that people are often absent minded and don’t think about the balance and when that happens, they are stuck behind the fare-gates. You can’t leave. You are trapped like a debtor prisoner in Victorian London and the only way you can add value to your card is by using the fare machine behind you.

However in keeping with the draconian manner of imprisonment, the fare machine only takes cash. And in a city where crime is high and pick pockets are swift, though nothing like roving bands of lovable Cockney rouges that steal your time piece and your hearts in Oliver Twist, people rarely carry cash. So, you find yourself stuck behind the gates like a middling soul in purgatory shouting at your roommate over a crowd of people and praying to the Lord that he has cash so you can spread your wings and fly to the above ground world where the furloughed workers drink themselves into a stupor like every night is Friday night. Without cash you are stuck behind the gates like the WMATA is stuck in the 1980’s.


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What does government debt and Smarttrip have in common?

The WMATA is a government agency which reports directly to the Council of the District of Columbia, which is overseen directly by the Federal Government. The same Federal Government that is $17 trillion in debt. If you haven’t noticed, trillion has 12 zeros. That is also the same Federal Government that oversees the group that says “No metro riders, you can only go $1.50 into negative on your SmarTrip, because we are losing too much money and are terrible at managing our finances.”

To recap, the US government can go $17 trillion in debt and edge closer to default, but a Metro rider can’t go over $1.50 on the SmarTrip card that he has to repay to ride the Metro again in the first place.

Readers who are not from Washington will not really care about this, and they will probably say “well why don’t you just watch the balance on your card?” And while they are right that as an adult who may or may not contribute to society you are expected to act like an adult and get your finances in order which includes maintaining your SmarTrip balance.

However, two things. One, how is it in any way shape or form okay and or legal to say that you cannot leave unless you pay the balance off your card, while not providing every means necessary to make said payment? There is no card reader, and there is no ATM machine behind the gates if you don’t have the cash and you can’t get it you cannot leave. They bar the gates. You shall not pass. Do not pass go, and do not collect $17 trillion.

You could ask a Metro employee to let you through to use the ATM but that both defeats the purpose and is not the point, and it also inconveniences a government employee who obviously has better things to do,

Secondly, who is the government to say “you can’t go too much into deficit on your card”? How do they have any kind of moral or fiscal leg to stand on to tell riders that? $17 trillion.

That is part of the irony that hangs in the air in DC, that is part of the problem of why there are so many disenfranchised government employees, contractors, and lobbyists wandering the streets on weeknights partying like they don’t have work in the morning because they don’t. And they don’t have work because the government can’t be bothered to practice what they preach. WMATA is steeped in debt, operating at a nearly $90 million deficit.

If they wanted to make more money perhaps they should, perhaps, take advantage of the ample potential ad space they have? Could that be a possibility? Instead of increasing taxes on commuters who use the roads to pay for commuters who use the rails, you could get sponsors to plaster their logos all over the giant gray creepy ceilings? Just food for thought, brought to you by 7-11 (see how it works?).

Until the government utilizes free market capitalism and open up ad space in the tunnels and on the walls the WMATA will be operating at a loss. Until the government fixes their budget this new SmarTrip card will continue to be an exercise in irony. And until the WMATA puts card readers or ATM machines behind the pearly gates people will continue to be caught behind them, subject to “bill only” machines in a cashless age.

Perhaps after time, their numbers will grow and they will dwell in the tunnels and develop their own language, even maybe trading with the surface world for supplies and novelized versions of their favorite movies and TV shows. Alas, until those card readers come, roving groups of cashless Metro riders could be reduced to singing for cash at the gates Acapella style, you could even start your own group and call them the Washington Metronomes. Maybe, just maybe, that would make it all worth it. 


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Conor Higgins

Conor Higgins has a B.A. from Catholic University in DC in American History, with a concentration on guerrilla warfare on American soil. He has an M.A. in US History from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, with a concentration on Cold War insurgency. He believes that all news and all information should be taken with a grain of salt, and implores people everywhere to seek news stories everywhere. 

Higgins is also a fervent believer in the traditional role of media, in terms of acting as a balanced check on government policies and individuals regardless of party affiliation. But in the end, he believes that no matter how heated an issue is, there is nothing that can't be discussed over a smoke and some whiskey. 

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