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Starts & Stops

MBTA insists it has plenty of CharlieCards, but stations come up short

CharlieCards are reloadable plastic cards that give riders a 50-cent subway discount over paper CharlieTickets.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

CharlieCards are reloadable plastic cards that give riders a 50-cent subway discount over paper CharlieTickets.

Has the T run out of CharlieCards?

That’s what reader Ruth Goran asked, after she went downtown last month to transfer money from a paper CharlieTicket to a more cost-effective CharlieCard and was told the supply had run dry. And this was at Charlie Central, Downtown Crossing’s customer service center.

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“Imagine my surprise when the woman in the booth told me that they do not have ANY Charlie Cards,” Goran, a Jamaica Plain resident, wrote in an e-mail hours after the June 11 exchange. “She told me that they haven’t had any for a while and don’t know when they will get them. What the heck is going on?”

That’s a story, I thought, immediately e-mailing MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. He replied quickly, and attempted to disabuse me of the notion.

No widespread shortage, he said, just the briefest of periods without cards at Downtown Crossing, possibly due to a communication lapse. “We are sending more cards over there,” he said. “This was the first complaint.”

And yet, every week or two since, I have heard from more readers reporting a shortage — not just at Downtown Crossing, but at many stations, and as far back as June 1. One said a T employee told her the cards were in stock but were not being distributed because of a computer glitch related to the July 1 fare increase. Another said he went to both Kendall Square and Harvard Square and was told by T employees that it could be months before they got more CharlieCards.

Each time I checked with Pesaturo or spokesman Joshua K. Robin, only to be told there was no shortage. If anything, they said, this is a scattered problem not of supply but of distribution or perhaps employee confusion and inaction, with station workers possibly not reporting when they need more cards.

T headquarters received a shipment of 96,000 fresh CharlieCards in June, with an additional 48,000 due in July, Robin said.

And yet, the problem seems to persist. It is particularly frustrating because the fare increase amplified the value of CharlieCards. For the uninitiated, those are the chip-embedded, reloadable plastic cards that now entitle riders to a 50-cent subway discount each way over paper CharlieTickets, as well as a free bus-subway transfer that is unavailable with the paper cards.

Last week I was in Porter Square when I discovered my own CharlieCard had expired — a separate, previously reported issue now affecting the first wave of cards issued in 2006-07 — prompting me to head to the customer service booth. (Vending machines can be used to reload CharlieCards but dispense only CharlieTickets; new cards are free but must be obtained from employees. The T used to leave them out, but people would quickly take the entire batch.)

The agent shrugged, said they were out, and suggested I try again in a week.

And still T officials say there is no shortage. “We have ample numbers,” Robin said.

“In the last 5½ years we’ve given out more than 7 million cards. That’s a lot of cards. We do everything we can, and we always have cards in stock,” Robin insisted. “It would be tough to find another transit agency that has done so much to distribute free cards and ensure customers have access to the best fare.”

Some systems charge for reloadable cards that entitle customers to a discount. In Washington, D.C., for example, the Metro charges $5 for smart cards, though it will soon offer a $3 rebate for those who register their cards online.

The T’s generosity, meanwhile, has contributed to CharlieCard profligacy, with people pocketing or losing them. Half of all cards issued in the last two years have been used three times or less, and one-fourth have never been used, Robin said. The cards cost the T about 75 cents each.

As a result, Robin said, the T is now considering putting a price on CharlieCards or otherwise changing the way it distributes them. Stay tuned.

Traffic light gone haywire

Reader Joe Morrissey of Roslindale called Friday to say a traffic signal gone haywire where Spring Street meets the VFW Parkway in West Roxbury was making it nearly impossible to cross the parkway on Spring, allowing only the briefest of green lights.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Verseckes said employees were already working on it, though the problem was more persistent than they expected. One control box handles the signals at that intersection as well as at Bridge and Needham streets just over the line in Dedham. The box shorted out because of a power surge in Wednesday night’s storm, possibly as a result of a lightning strike, Verseckes said.

An electrical component known as a signal controller was replaced Thursday morning; though the piece in stock fit, it was not the right brand, throwing off the timing of the lights. By Friday afternoon, a successful replacement part had been installed and properly timed to restore normal traffic flow at the intersections, Verseckes said.

Raised slab on 128 fixed

Patricia Carli, a daily commuter from the North Shore to Boston, wrote in last month to ask about a longstanding problem with Route 128 in Peabody.

“I’m wondering if there are any plans to fix the roadway a short distance before exit 25B at Route 114 going south. I’ve always been puzzled by why there is a large, raised slab of concrete in the left lane,” Carli wrote. “I’m surprised no one has ever hit that spot too fast and lost control of their vehicle. There is now a large hole in the concrete as well.”

This one took a little digging, and by the time I got an answer from the state, the problem had been solved. Verseckes, the Transportation Department spokesman, said the slab was a vestige of an old bridge-deck repair project of uncertain vintage “that had obviously seen better days.”

The slab was removed last weekend as part of a four-day project completed Tuesday by state contractor SPS New England at a cost of $40,000, including police detail, Verseckes said. Workers repaired, patched, and smoothed the surface of the highway deck, he said.

“What you will see out there now is a much smoother top coat without any kind of height difference in the roadway surface nor any slabs, bumps, or other objects protruding up from below,” he said via e-mail.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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