Jeffrey Covey
4 Lodge Road
Catonsville, MD 21228

August 6, 2004

Congressman Tom Davis
U.S. House of Representatives
2348 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-4611

Dear Congressman Davis:

I’d like to share with you the horrible experience we had when we tried to use the D.C. Metro system today. We’re from Baltimore, and we wanted to see an exhibition at the Freer Gallery. We drove to the Landover station and parked. As we entered the lot, I read a sign about the need to get a card from the station to pay our $3.50 to leave. I thought this meant I needed to get a transfer ticket from our destination, as I’d had to do when I used the Metro many years ago, and I didn’t think any more of it.

We had a fine time downtown, and when we returned to Landover, I asked the attendant on duty what I needed to do to pay for my parking. She told me I would have to pay $13.50 because I didn’t have a “SmarTrip” card. I was blown over, but she insisted there was no option. She showed me where the SmarTrip machines were. Unfortunately, they only took $1, $5, and $10 bills. We’d paid the full roundtrip fee when we bought our Metro tickets, and had nothing but $20s with us. We tried to get change from several other Metro riders buying their tickets, but no one could help us. The attendant pointed out that the machines would take credit cards, so I went back to try my Visa on them. The first machine read the card, asked for my Zip code, then said it was unable to process the card. I tried the second machine, and got the same result. The attendant came over and tried to help. I did it again to show her what was happening. I then tried it one last time as a debit card instead of as a credit card. I entered my PIN and waited a much longer time, but still got the message that my card could not be processed.

We were seriously concerned that we were stranded at this point. We had no money that the machines would take, they gave error messages in response to my only credit card, the attendant said she was not allowed to give change, there were no change machines, and the attendant said we absolutely had to have the SmarTrip card to leave and there was no way we could just pay our $3.50 to a human parking attendant. We seemed to be hostages in the parking lot indefinitely until she suggested we go outside and try the cab drivers. One of them was able to give us two $10s for one of our $20s, and we finally got the card and could leave. Luckily, the attendant was mistaken, and the $10 cost was $5 for the card itself plus a $5 credit toward Metro services, so we ended with a $5 card, $3.50 paid, and a $1.50 credit.

The bizarre incident seemed to be over until I returned home and was balancing my checkbook against my bank’s website this evening. I found four $10 debits made against my account by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. At this point, we’ve paid $53.50 toward a $3.50 parking fee.

I assume that when it’s discovered that these four charges were made and no cards were issued, the $40 will be automatically refunded to my account, but given the comments from other Metro riders I found in a Washington Post article, my optimism may be poorly placed.

But even if the whole exchange had gone smoothly, the system is patently ridiculous. We live in Baltimore and usually drive downtown on the rare occasions when we visit Washington. Why did we have to pay $5 for this card? It’s going to be years before we use it, if ever. It and its $1.50 credit will probably sit in our sock drawer for decades. What about this card could possibly cost $5? Is it made of gold-plated plastic?

While we were in the Smithsonian station, we helped three Japanese tourists to find their way. When they returned to their rental car, did they find themselves similarly stranded? Did they have to use their limited English to try to understand the complicated procedure they had to follow? Did they have a $10 U.S. bill, or were they humiliated by having to beg for money from Americans entering the station? Did they have to invest $6.50 in a piece of useless plastic to take back to Tokyo with them? How many people from all over our country and the world have had to pay this unadvertised $6.50 tax just because they parked at a Metro station?

I’ve always encouraged people from out of town to visit our nation’s capital and to take advantage of its subway system, but I’ll now be advising them to stay far away from this nightmarish scam. I’m embarrassed that we’re treating our guests this way.

The Post article listed you as one of the people trying to straighten out this farce. I hope you’re able to do something about it.

Jeffrey Covey

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