Houston Metro Is Set to Make It Easier/Possibly Harder on Cash-Paying Riders

Heights resident Miles Brown has been a Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority rail and bus commuter for 13 years. Because of a circuitous route that forces him to make transfers in order to get to work, Brown says he has been paying the one-way $1.25 cash fare twice, or $2.50.

Same deal on the return trip home. That’s $5 a day, $25 for his workweek instead of $12.50.

“They’re out to get you,” says Brown, referring to Metro.

Brown doesn’t own a Q Card, the electronic fare card that allows riders to load up the device with moolah and scan the card at light-rail platforms and on the bus. (The card doesn’t double-charge because it’s all fancy and digital and stuff.) Instead, Brown has double-paid for his inbound and outbound rides for a long time.

Like it or not, dude, Metro is about to make it better/maybe worse/possibly exactly the same but a little different for you and other cash-paying riders.

Starting January 24, bus drivers will start handing Q Cards to riders, free of charge. Cool because folks won’t need to travel to the Metro office or a participating retailer to grab a Q card. Potentially not cool because all new cards require a $5 load minimum and can be refilled only at light-rail platforms or via the Metro website.

In the meantime, Metro is phasing out its short-lived paper transfer program.

On July 1, 2015, the transit authority reinstituted the O.G. paper transfer policy that it had killed in 2008 when the Q Card was introduced, a decision that ultimately hurt low-income riders and forced tourists to fork over additional fares. The program gave cash-paying riders the option of asking for a transfer slip from a bus driver, which could then be presented to another bus driver or light-rail fare inspector for a free transfer. (For details about paper transfers, go meet the year 1985 for a drink.)

However, many riders either weren’t aware of the pilot program or weren’t using it. According to Metro spokesperson Tracy Jackson, who says the transportation agency went full blast on promoting the program, only 1.3 percent of total bus and light-rail boarders requested paper transfers. The program expired on December 31, and is currently being phased out. (For now, Metro will still accept a paper slip.)

Along with the Q Card distribution program, the rule about one-direction-only transfers is also going away; riders, within a three-hour window, will be able to transfer routes as many times as they want and in any direction; before, the three-hour transfer window was valid only for same-way travel and not in the opposite direction.

“Our focus isn’t on revenue," says Jackson when asked if Metro officials had calculated any potential revenue hits now that the agency will certainly lose out on collecting double payments. "It’s on increasing ridership.” 

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