The end of exact change

Transit in Maryland takes a major, if overdue, journey forward Tuesday with the unveiling of the CharmCard, a reusable "smart" fare card that can be used to ride local buses, Metro subways and Baltimore's light rail system, as well as Washington-area transit systems. Perhaps now the phrase "exact change please" can be relegated to stories to scare grandchildren at bedtime.

The technology is not exactly cutting edge — smart cards are standard in most European transit systems and increasingly in this country since the 1990s — but the convenience is undeniable. Baltimore riders will be able to put as much as $200 on a card and then wave it at subway fare gates, bus fare boxes and light rail ticket machines to pay a fare.

Transit ridership in the Baltimore area is not as high as it should be. The no-frills subway system has only one line. The light rail has too many shortcomings to list. And neither is particularly well connected to the other. The CharmCard is an example of exactly where the Maryland Transit Administration should be investing its resources — in making what transit options Baltimoreans do have more accessible, integrated and convenient.

The cards should also be helpful to the MTA in better understanding their customers and their transit needs, since the agency will be able to monitor where and when they are used. The card's current capabilities should also be regarded as only a starting point.

Adding commuter buses and MARC commuter trains to the CharmCard mix would be a welcome advance, particularly with the growing popularity of MARC service. But why not also add city parking meters and parking lots of all kinds, including those at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport?

That won't happen overnight, of course. The CharmCard took a decade to develop, not only because the political will for it waxed and waned (Gov. Parris N. Glendening was the original advocate behind the $80 million investment) but because there are practical obstacles, too. For instance, the MARC system's main problem is that it lacks exit gates that would require the smart card to be swiped upon passenger arrival. To add them at busy destinations like Washington's Union Station was judged impractical.

Technology may allow other options, too. Smart phones that many commuters already have in their pockets can be integrated with a similar capability (an embedded computer chip). Or the CharmCard might someday become more like a debit card, with owners using it to buy a meal or the newspaper on their morning commute.

But the bottom line is that this is not only a welcome advance but a needed psychological boost for transit use in the Baltimore area. Anyone who remembers when buying a subway token required first changing your money into Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, or the frequent failures of the early light rail ticket machines, can appreciate that. Such annoyances screamed a message: Transit in Baltimore is no more than a half-measure.

Potential riders, particularly those who own cars, are dissuaded by less. Not sure how much a bus fare costs? Don't have exact change? How can I buy a day pass? These are the kinds of seemingly minor obstacles that prevent many from riding mass transit. The more such uncertainties can be taken out of the system, the better for everyone.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Baltimore's future relies on better public transit service than has been available in the past. Smart cards help. So will greater public investment in buses and city rail lines.

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