Paper bus transfers are going the way of trolleys in the District of Columbia.

Effective Jan. 4, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will discontinue the use of paper transfers, which allow riders to switch buses for free and interchange from subways to buses for 45 cents.

WMATA aims to save money and encourage more riders to use SmarTrip cards, as passengers will still be able to transfer buses for free with SmarTrip. The transfer time will be extended from two hours to three hours, addressing a common rider complaint.

WMATA will save about $350,000 in printing and purchasing costs, and Metro spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said the agency would save an additional $2 million by not replacing outdated transfer machines.

WMATA faced a $109 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year before raising fares and making other adjustments to close the gap.

The move is also expected to lower boarding times for buses, prevent fraudulent use of transfers and reduce assaults on bus drivers spurred by fare disputes.

“We have no way of knowing how much fraud is out there,” Farbstein said.

She said that a suspect was recently arrested after he was caught with about 400 paper transfers, probably destined for illegal resale or distribution.

Other transit agencies have experienced revenue growth after eliminating paper transfers, Ferbstein added. The Chicago Transit Authority gained $37 million in revenue when it axed paper transfers in 2006.

While no exact statistics are available, Farbstein said that attacks on bus drivers are quite common.

“People assault bus drivers virtually every week,” she said.

In addition to disputes over the validity of transfers, people sometimes attempt to steal packets of transfers from drivers.

Teresa Jackson, a university employee who rides Metrobuses almost every day, said she has witnessed someone trying to steal a book of transfers from a driver and people trying to peddle stolen transfers for $1 at bus stops.

etro’s Riders’ Advisory Council expressed concern about the policy change, contending that the existing SmarTrip network was not sufficient. In its October 2008 report to the agency’s board of directors, the committee expressed several concerns, including that SmarTrip cards were not available for purchase in enough locations and did not allow for certain fare options and that the public has not been adequately informed of the impending changes.

“It is clear that until the promised upgrades to the SmarTrip program – including greater availability of ways to purchase and add fare to the cards – are made, going `paperless’ will be a hardship on riders,” the report concluded.

The RAC also questioned the impact of the changes on low-income riders.

John Pasek, RAC staff coordinator, declined further comment on behalf of the committee.

WMATA plans to increase the number of locations where SmarTrip cards can be purchased and launch a major marketing campaign to promote the change.

According to WMATA, about half of Metrobus passengers use cash or transfers. However, according to the RAC report, less than 30 percent of bus trips are paid for using SmarTrip. Farbstein said 3 million passengers used bus-to-bus paper transfers in August. She said 3 million SmarTrip cards have been sold to date, and about half are still in use.

SmarTrip cards give a 10 cent discount on the cash fare for buses and are the only payment method accepted at WMATA parking lots.

Over the past few years, Metro has made a concerted effort to entice more riders to use the value-added cards, which cost $5.

“If bus riders are smart, they’ll figure it out pretty quick,” Farbstein said of the advantages SmarTrip cards offer.

“I don’t think it’ll be any different,” Jackson said. She transfers buses on most days, and uses either paper transfers or a SmarTrip.

She said drivers often give her transfers with incorrect time stamps, a problem that SmarTrip users do not encounter.

The WMATA Board of Directors approved the elimination of paper transfers as part of the fiscal year 2009 budget, and the agency has held public meetings and met with groups representing affected parties. Farbstein said no major concerns were raised during the meetings.

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