Some 30,000 Metro riders have received a special invite this month to help the transit agency test a new feature that will let commuters load money onto their SmarTrip cards automatically.

The new tool will let riders set a dollar amount for their registered plastic farecards. If the total on the card drops below that level, the transit agency will automatically bill the riders' credit card or debit card to add an amount of money determined by the rider.

It's part of the agency's push to encourage more riders to use the plastic farecards instead of paper cards, a campaign that has included other carrots but also sticks. The agency added a $1-per-trip surcharge on every rail trip made using a paper farecard, but it also has dropped the cost of SmarTrip cards from $5 to $2 after giving a $3 rebate when riders register their cards.

Setting an autoload level
Riders who opt for the autoload feature should set a high enough minimum balance so that they aren't caught fareless. Consider at least twice your daily commute costs because it could take one business day for the money to kick in on the rail system and up to two business days on bus, Metro warns.

The idea of the autoload feature is similar to what is used on E-ZPass accounts for the highway tolling system, which allows motorists to have money automatically added when a transponder's balance falls below a certain level.

Studies have shown that drivers aren't as sensitive to toll increases when they pay automatically. The same may be true with Metro fares, with riders focusing less on how much they are spending when their credit cards get billed each month rather than when manually loading another $20 onto their cards.

For Metro, the autoload feature could help provide a more consistent stream of money as riders have money automatically added to their accounts -- that is, if Metro changes how it tracks fares on its books.

Currently, Metro counts riders' fares as revenue only when riders pass through the faregates, not when they load money onto farecards. Unused money from forgotten cards is eventually counted on the books.

But Metro is considering revisiting the way it is accounting for that money as part of an occasional review of its practices, said Carol Dillon Kissal, Metro's chief financial officer. Riders are putting more money on their cards, up from an average of about $17 to $47.

So far, about 1,300 SmarTrip card users of the 30,000 emailed have signed up for the pilot, said Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato.

"Just like conducting a survey, you have to cast a wide net to get the desired participation. Inviting 30,000 people nets you, in this case, about 1,300 actual participants in the pilot, and that's the number we were going for," she said.

It's not clear, though, when Metro will offer the feature to all SmarTrip users, who hold a total of 609,878 registered cards. This summer, the agency had said the feature would be available by late September. But now the agency is more vague, saying this fall. "We will issue a news release when autoload is ready," Asato said.