Metro’s ‘slow re­sponse’ to prob­lems leads to CVS plans to drop SmarTrip pro­gram

Re­tailer’s de­ci­sion could af­fect thou­sands of rail, bus com­muters

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY LUZ LAZO luz.lazo@wash­post.com

Metro’s slow re­sponse to re­pair­ing faulty SmarTrip equip­ment avail­able at CVS stores left the re­tailer “no choice” but to end a nearly decade-old re­la­tion­ship with the tran­sit agency and dis­con­tinue the sale of fare cards at the re­gion’s 200 stores, com­pany of­fi­cials said.

CVS apol­o­gized Fri­day to cus­tomers who use the service and said it shares their dis­ap­point­ment, but main­tained its plan to ter­mi­nate the Metro con­tract at the end of the month.

Metro said it wants to make amends and is ask­ing CVS to re­con­sider, say­ing the tran­sit agency is “ready to work through any is­sues CVS may have.”

The breakup could af­fect thou­sands of com­muters — par­tic­u­larly bus riders — who use the re­tail store to buy SmarTrip cards and to add sin­gle-trip fares and weekly passes to their fare cards. Metro riders make as many as a half-mil­lion SmarTrip pur­chases and reload trans­ac­tions at CVS Phar­macy stores in the re­gion each year, ac­cord­ing to Metro.

Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld con­firmed Thurs­day the tran­sit agency is try­ing to work out a deal with the re­tailer.

“I’m as­sum­ing they’re making a busi­ness de­ci­sion not to do it any longer,” Wiede­feld told re­porters. He said the agency would do “any­thing” to “change that busi­ness de­ci­sion.”

But it may be a long shot to re­pair the re­la­tion­ship. CVS said it grew tired of prob­lems with the Metro equip­ment and the agency’s poor re­sponse to re­solv­ing op­er­a­tional is­sues.

“Over the past sev­eral months, we have been work­ing with [Metro] in an at­tempt to re­solve op­er­a­tional is­sues that have caused dis­rup­tion to cus­tomer service in our stores, in­clud­ing un­sus­tain­ably slow re­sponse times to re­pair SmarTrip equip­ment that fre­quently mal­func­tions,” CVS said in a state­ment.

“Un­for­tu­nately, [Metro] could not com­mit to re­solv­ing these is­sues sat­is­fac­to­rily, which left us with no choice ex­cept to exit the SmarTrip pro­gram ef­fec­tive May 31,” CVS said.

The drug­store gi­ant of­fered in­sight into its de­ci­sion a day af­ter The Washington Post re­ported about the loss of the pro­gram used heav­ily by low-in­come and im­mi­grant tran­sit cus­tomers who do not have credit cards and use cash to pay for their fares.

SmarTrip cards are also avail­able at Gi­ant Food stores, com­muter stores, col­lege cam­puses and the Metro sales of­fice at Metro Cen­ter. But CVS is by far the largest re­tailer of the fare cards; it has three times as many stores in the pro­gram as Gi­ant.

Tran­sit riders and ad­vo­cates urged the two par­ties to rec­on­cile their dif­fer­ences and main­tain the service. Although Metro riders have the choice to add cash to their fare cards aboard buses, many say they pre­fer to do it at the re­tail store where they can also buy more af­ford­able weekly passes un­avail­able for pur­chase on the bus. Adding value to SmarTrip cards aboard the bus also is dif­fi­cult dur­ing busy com­mutes and holds the buses longer at bus stops.

In a May 1 let­ter to Metro, CVS gave the agency a month’s no­tice about end­ing the agree­ment and said it would be re­turn­ing all the tran­sit card in­ven­tory. In a re­sponse let­ter May 8, Metro said it tried to sal­vage the re­la­tion­ship by of­fer­ing to re­place 30 out­dated SmarTrip ma­chines avail­able to CVS as­so­ciates with “newer, more re­li­able units.” It also of­fered to re­place $10 SmarTrip cards with cards of no value to re­duce the cost risk for CVS, the tran­sit agency said.

Metro did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to CVS’s claim that the tran­sit agency was slow to re­spond.

“Your service is in­dis­pens­able for tran­sit-de­pen­dent cus­tomers who have no bank ac­counts or credit cards, and there­fore, can­not pur­chase Metro fares on­line,” Metro’s As­sis­tant Gen­eral Man­ager Lynn Bow­er­sox and chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Den­nis Anosike wrote in the let­ter.

Wiede­feld said Metro has made ef­forts to see whether CVS might con­tinue sales at the 20 most pop­u­lar lo­ca­tions and is look­ing for other po­ten­tial mer­chants to fill the void. CVS re­ceived a por­tion of the money for each sale, he said.

“It’s for the riders, I mean, it’s for our cus­tomers,” Wiede­feld said of the pro­gram. “We want to get as many re­tail op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly peo­ple that don’t have op­por­tu­ni­ties to get our fare me­dia, so we’ll con­tinue to do that. Ob­vi­ously they’re a big player and we hate to lose them, so ob­vi­ously we’ll try to work with them.”

CVS said Fri­day it has been pleased to par­tic­i­pate in the SmarTrip pro­gram and will con­sider keep­ing it in some stores, but with con­di­tions: “We re­main will­ing to dis­cuss op­tions to con­tinue par­tic­i­pat­ing in SmarTrip in a smaller num­ber of stores as we have pre­vi­ously of­fered, pro­vided that [Metro] com­mits to re­solv­ing the is­sues we have raised with them, in­clud­ing prop­erly op­er­at­ing equip­ment and trans­par­ent fi­nan­cial ac­count­abil­ity.”

CVS did not ex­plain what it meant by “trans­par­ent fi­nan­cial ac­count­abil­ity.”

Faiz Sid­diqui con­trib­uted to this re­port.

2010 PHOTO BY MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

CVS of­fi­cials say the re­tailer will dis­con­tinue the sale of Metro’s SmarTrip cards at the re­gion’s 200 stores by the end of this month. The tran­sit agency says it is try­ing to work out a deal with CVS, which has com­plained of lag­ging main­te­nance.

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