“Metro archives the money on cards that are not frequently used” Wait, What?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Eric P.

“Dear PoPville,

I just logged into my Smartrip online account to add money to my card. I also have 3 cards that I purchased for when I have guests. I noticed that the balance on one is zero. There had been money up until a few weeks ago. I just called to inquire and was told that Metro archives the money on cards that are not frequently used. Supposedly, the money will automatically reappear once it is used again but the agent wasn’t sure if it would appear immediately or make me add money until it did.

This is ridiculous. We pay for the card and we pay to put money on them. We should not have to pay again to get our money back. I have griped for a while that if you add money or a pass online and only ride the bus, it can take up to 2 days before the money appears on your card.”

59 Comment

  • Did they mention if this is a new policy? I’ve had cards for years, and the balances always showed when checked online.

    • It happened to me about a year ago. I’d been on travel for six weeks, and had to load money onto my card to make my first Metro trip when I returned. Kind of annoying since I already had six weeks of unused SmartBenefits that had been deducted from my paycheck while I was gone.

      • Also, I didn’t think of it at the time, but I have guest cards that don’t get much use and they always work. So that’s odd.

  • As of a month ago, a large portion of the building still hasn’t been able to move back in after the fire.

  • Taking a lesson from NYC, maybe? the MTA’s cards have expiration dates. Bye bye $

    • They may expire, but you can exchange for a new card pretty easily. Wondered how that worked myself until a recent trip.

    • Yes, technically it’s expired, but if you go to a machine you can add it to your next MetroCard very easily. I’ve found expired MetroCards in my wallet but I’ve been able to add them to a new card when I go home.

      • If they’re really expired any MTA station agent will do it for you. Or you can mail it in and they’ll send you a new card. I’ve done both with no problems.

  • I also noticed this the other week when checking the balance of a card I keep around for guests. The balance said $0.00, though I was positive that I had money still on it. I tapped the card at the station and the proper balance appeared.

    • How odd. So the balance showed as zero when you checked it online? Or when you touched the card to the sensor on a farecard machine outside the turnstiles?
      (I wasn’t sure whether the proper balance had appeared when you tapped the card at the actual turnstile, or whether going into the station and touching it to a card reader was sufficient to “un-archive” the money.

      • When it happened to me the balance showed as zero when I touched it to a turnstile. Then I ran to a machine and the balance was still showing as zero. Then I ran to the station manager in a panic, because I should have had around $200 on it, and he told me I had to load money onto it to get the old money to show up. So that’s what I did…

        • Thanks for the clarification. How annoying — seems like just touching the card to a reader inside a station ought to be enough to “un-archive” the balance.

      • The balance appeared when I tapped the card to the fare machine.

  • re the expired MTA cards (NYC Subway). depending on the card you don’t lose the money, in some cases an attendant can transfer your money to a new card. if they are unable to then there is a classic and quaint thing called a ‘paper’ form that you fill out and then mail in. i did this recently to claim back $2.35, so they take it seriously!

  • Just another way for this embarrassment of a transit agency to steal from us. Add that to charging fares for same-station exits, charging peak fares when trains don’t show up or are hugely delayed, and offering no recourse when the card machines eat money.

  • How is this not theft? As an infrequent metro rider, though I live in DC (was easier to drive to work than take metro, and took 1/3 of the time, and parking was free), I thought it was bad enough that I’d find those old paper tickets in pockets that had expired with money on them.

  • I recently switched jobs and had ~$650 on my smartrip card. I one day, shortly after switching, went to take metro and saw that I had $1.50 remaining. When I wrote to ask what had happened to all the money, they apologized and said there had been a glitch in the system as I was no longer receiving the transit benefits from my last job. $650! Maybe that was “archived” as well in the hopes that I would never notice (as I typically use my card only sporadically).

    • ah

      That could be a result of employer provided transit benefits that expire at the end of a month or upon termination of employment.

    • when you leave a job, they can either put you “on hold” or terminate you in the smart benefits program. If they terminate you, you no longer have access to your funds that were put on there through the smartbenefits and eventually your job gets the money back, If the put you “on hold” you can continue to use the funds. My advice (I do our firms smart benefits program) if you are going to leave a job, transfer all your money to a new card.

    • Agree with Ah. I actually found out that with the personal $$ I put on the card I have through work (work gives us a card, then puts SmartBenefits $$ on it), if I get rid of the card, even temporarily, I lose my personal money. But I have to have the personal money because many days I go somewhere other than home after work and need to pay more than I get. I lost $80 when I had to move to the parking program for a short time when I was on crutches.

  • Happened to me, utterly ridiculous and never made sense

  • This and the bus complaint are both due to WMATA’s antiquated fare system, and especially the backend of the system. SmarTrip was the first smart card system in the USA (began in 1999) and was overlayed on top of the existing 1970s fare system. The faregates have limited memory that affects their operation with smart cards. Also, all of the fare balance information is stored on the SmarTrip card itself – the central server is a mirror of that but is not the controlling record. That means that after a while, they don’t know what’s going on with your card. As the commenter at 1:26 says, if you use the card the balance will appear immediately as it is stored on the card itself.

    For the bus-online load problem, the reason is again because the information is stored on the card. So when you do an online load, that information has to be passed from the fare system, to the farebox on the bus, and then to your card. Since the bus fareboxes can only be updated when the bus returns to the garage (they aren’t wirelessly connected via cell phone or anything long-range) it can take up to two days for the information to get from the online system to the physical card.

    There was a plan for updating the fare system but that has been put on hold.

    • ah

      I don’t doubt the system is this convoluted, but why does that require “archiving” the balance? At worst it means that card doesn’t reflect any recently added value because it hasn’t communicated with the online system. But it doesn’t explain a need to reduce the balance to zero – if you’ve not tapped your card to any machine and you’ve made no online transactions, then there’s no reason to flag the card as having an uncertain balance – it should be no lower.

      • I stopped receiving the benefits, but I kept the money I had already accumulated. After writing, they refunded the ~$650. That never should have been deducted/”archived.”

  • Might be a federal requirement (don’t know just speculating). I know Virginia will send your balance to the Unclaimed Property portion of the Virginia Treasury if you don’t use your pass after a year + (forgot the exact cut-off).

  • It is an effective, yet shameful and unbelievable galling accounting trick that allows them to move money to fill revenue holes left by their declining ridership. Kind of like when you get a gift card, but the money disappears if you don’t use it in time.

    It is stealing by any other word. Sure, its “credited back” to you after you give them more money (ransom)

  • Sounds like a safety measure. I work in IT security and by law we are disable accounts after 90 days of activity. Accounts are re-enabled once a user log on and changes passwords. Applying to smart trips, its seems to protect your $$$ they disable the card from illicit use and use the adding of $ as a means to re-enable the card. Knowing this, one could add a small amount, a base fare to simply reactivate their card if that is indeed their now policy. Someone who rides metro should follow up and get the policy being followed but it seems like deactivating the card is a security measure should one lose it or have it stolen. The funds are cached and able to be ported over to a new card if necessary.

    • Yeah because we all know much Metro prioritizes SAFETY!! What’s next, a RELIABILITY measure?!

      • More so a security and liability issue with having money loaded on inactive cards for an extended period of time that they may be bound to by government and financial laws.

    • There also may be a way to re-enable your card through the website that may not require adding fare if you have been inactive for a long period of time.

    • This sounds like a solution in search of a problem. Do that many people really have their cards stolen, not notice for weeks, then call up WMATA to complain that someone else used their funds?

      • ah

        You need a step beyond that – the card is lost, and found by someone but not used for weeks, and then the finder tries to use it and depletes the account.

  • It’s basic financial management, and good accounting practice. You don’t want a bunch of money hanging out on that short term liability line, so you make estimates on how much liability you can defer and invest it elsewhere. Having your credit “archived” or “inactive” is a common way of handling it. Most services where you pay in advance and draw down have similar practices. Skype comes to mind.
    You (and the rest of us) almost certainly clicked a box asserting “I have read and agreed to the terms and conditions,” and it was covered somewhere in the fine print.

    • I am sure that I didn’t click any box when I went up to a farecard machine, bought a smartrip card and then went to the AddFare machine to move the money on all my paper farecards to the smartrip card. I certainly shouldn’t have to pay money (and add to the value) in order to access the money that I put on the card. Not to mention the fact that if your reach $300, you can’t add money to a card. If it is just a matter of reactivating it at a farecard machine, without having to add value, that might work for Metro riders, but not for people who mostly rely on and ride buses.

      • Look at the back of your card. “SmarTrip is subject to applicable term and conditions. See them at http://www.smartrip etc”. Lawyers can probably tell us if use of card implies consent to terms.
        I don’t have time today, but maybe someone else is running out the clock and wants to find the language pertaining to inactive funds.

        • IMO, it’s still a sneaky practice, even if it’s mentioned in the T&Cs.

          • Yep! The same practice profitably and legally employed by every business that holds any kind of prepaid account. Skype, PayPal, “gift cards” as recommended a dozen times any time someone asks “what should I get my nephew/co-worker/babysitter…”

          • Yeah, but I think that’s not an apt comparison — how many other transit cards do this?
            As I noted below, the London Underground doesn’t do this. And whereas the $5 fee for a SmarTrip card is money you can’t get back, the 5 pounds to get an OystetCard is actually a refundable deposit.

          • Would you expect the laws governing deferred liabilities to be the same in every country?
            The US is known for prioritizing business interests over consumer interests.

        • ah

          There is no provision. If one goes to smartrip.com, as listed on the back of the card, you can eventually get to the FAQs on WMATA’s website:


          Nowhere is there any mention of archiving of funds, or losing funds for non-use, or something similar.

        • OK, it says that on the card that I bought this week, but there is no such language on the card that I bought when they were first being issued.

    • I’ve had an OysterCard — the SmarTrip equivalent for the London Underground — longer than I’ve had a SmarTrip card.
      My OysterCard balance has never been “archived,” even though I’ve gone as long as 18 months without using it.

  • Because “safety” has been a big priority for Metro?

  • Interesting. It’s definitely an accounting maneuver. It’s not as if the smartrip is a bank account, so they’re not really holding money hostage. You pay money to metro and they put an equivalent amount of value on a card. Once you put it on the card, you can’t get it back. You can use it for the service of riding metro, which on their end, from an accounting standpoint, is a liability. They just transfer that liability to some other category.
    I would love to see some more discussion from actual accountants and people that might have some insight to this.
    I also have ‘guest’ cards, and would hate to have to go to a metro station before I have guests to make sure the cards are active. It’s a minor inconvenience but still annoying.

  • Playing devil’s advocate here. If I told you there was 10 million dollars sitting in the bank on inactive cards and if metro was allowed to use some percentage of that (obviously some of this money is never claimed) we could avoid a wage hike what would you think about it?

    • ah

      I would think WMATA is engaging in either accounting chicanery or outright theft.

      Let me flip it around for you – what if Congress decided that there were a bunch of “inactive” savings accounts with >$100B in them, and decided that it would allow them to avoid new taxes if they used some percentage of those accounts?

  • I have four ‘guest’ cards, two I bought years ago, two I bought in the past year. One old, one new was affected by this. I tapped the zero cards to the fare vending machine, and the amounts were back. I also logged in to the website about an hour later, and the amounts were correct. Whew. Guess I’ll write myself a note to do this again in a few months.
    All four of mine have been used in the last six months and two were zeroed, two were not. I don’t see a pattern.

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