Metro will close its last sales office as services move elsewhere

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Metro’s only sales office to conduct various in-person transactions closes at the end of the month, the latest change as the transit industry increasingly moves towards digital services amid a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Metro Center office is the last of its kind after a years-long decline in the number of physical locations, though its services are still available elsewhere. The office will close on June 30.

While in-person ticketing and fare card assistance purchases will exist in subway stations and suburban stores, closing comes as Metro increased virtual services and mobile payment options. Moving is expected to cut Metro spending at a time when the transit agency is struggling to return to pre-pandemic ridership, a drop that has resulted in a significant loss of fare revenue.

The sales office provided support to help passengers transfer balances, add freight charges and replace lost cards, although most customers use it to purchase discounted passes, such as those for the elderly and disabled. The services offered by the office will be available by other channels, such as commuter stores, ticket vending machines at train stations, online or at Metro’s new Transit Accessibility Center.

Barb Fraze, 65, came to the sales office one recent afternoon to get a senior SmarTrip card and transfer balances during his lunch break. She said she hopes to avoid taking the longest trip to the Metro Accessibility Center at L’Enfant Plaza.

Fraze, who said she considers herself “pretty tech-savvy,” said she plans to stick with Metro’s physical ticketing system. But after trying to transfer balances to her new SmarTrip card at the sales desk, she was finally told she had to complete the transaction online.

“I just think there are people who are going to be like, ‘How can I do this?'” said Fraze, who said she was comforted by the possibility of calling Metro customer service to get help. “I think it’s going to be a struggle for some people who aren’t tech-savvy.”

Metro’s board of directors approved the closure as part of its fiscal year 2023 budget. A budget proposal cited “a decline in demand for in-person purchases of priced media products and services as more customers use mobile media and internet sales.”

The decision comes as declining ridership weighs on Metro’s finances.

The agency previously estimated it would face a half-billion-dollar budget shortfall starting next summer — before receiving a federal grant and recently boosting ridership — while Metro is also preparing for a deficit in its capital projects budget. Transit officials did not respond to a request for comment on how much money the closure would save each year.

Metro closed most of its in-person sales offices in November 2016, citing a nearly $300 million budget gap and declining usage. At the time, the four offices that were each closing processed less than 200 interactions per day.

When the sales office moved from Metro headquarters in 2018 to its Metro Center location, its hours were extended from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Since then, those hours have been reduced to 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Whereas ridership is on the rise and has exceeded the transit agency’s initial goals for the fiscal year, the increase is probably not enough to recover financially. About $2.4 billion in federal funds helped Metro avoid cutting service earlier in the pandemic, but that help will start to run out next summer. Transit officials said unless ridership improves significantly, Metro may have to cut service without other sources of revenue.

Last month, 85% of Metrorail trips were paid for with physical SmarTrip cards, while 15% were paid for with mobile devices, Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said. Like other transit agencies, Metro has no plans to phase out physical forms of payment.

The transit agency encouraged customers to sign up for mobile payment options, including adding their SmarTrip card to Apple Wallet or Google Pay and downloading the SmarTrip app. Many transit systems across the country have joined contactless payment systems, which have become more popular during the pandemic.

Every New York City subway station offers contactless card readers, allowing riders to connect their phone or credit card to an electronic reader. The system will stop offering its paper ticket by 2024. The San Francisco Bay Area rapid transit system accelerated its transition from paper tickets to contactless cards in 2020 amid coronavirus concerns.

At Metro, this evolution began to progress after it ended paper travel cards in 2016 – the same year plans canceled for a mobile payment system, citing a lack of interest. After rapid growth in smartphone usage, Metro has announced new plans to launch a mobile payment system in 2019.

These options were finally launched during the pandemic in September 2020, when Metro announced that passengers could use Apple Pay and a new mobile app to use a virtual SmarTrip card. Android users were able to start paying virtually in June 2021.

Despite the growing popularity of mobile and contactless systems, many subway riders who use the sales desk said they were reluctant to upset their routines. More customers visiting the location are seniors seeking SmarTrip customer service, which is now offered at L’Enfant Plaza, Jannetta said.

According to Metro’s budget documents, the proposed closure required a Title VI equity analysis by the Federal Transit Administration. The analysis determined that the closure would not disproportionately affect minority or low-income riders, but has not evaluated its effects on senior riders.

Addie Brinkley, 68, came to the sales office for the first time earlier this month to replace a lost transport card. She said she plans to continue using Metro’s physical payment system, adding that she prefers the security and simplicity of reloading money at ticketing kiosks.

She said she probably wouldn’t switch to mobile payments until she took computer classes at a charter school for adults.

“I couldn’t use a computer,” Brinkley said. “I’m old school.”

Sallie R. Loera