Nine times a day, on average, people have paid their Metro bus fare with a $2 bill.
The $2 bill is the peculiar one, the least familiar among U.S. paper money, a denomination often imbued with superstitions and dismissed as being out of print.
But, aboard a Metro bus, that rare $2 bill afforded a pleasing symmetry. Bus fare is $2. Just drop the note in the fare box and move on.
Beginning today, that’s no longer possible. Metro transit buses have been outfitted with new fare boxes that verify and count bills and coins, like vending machines, and allow officials to more closely track the transactions. Now, these modernized boxes no longer accept pennies, half-dollar coins or $2 bills.
Pennies are no surprise, even though Metro bus riders deposited more than 1.9 million of them in the last fiscal year. The coins have been inflated out of favor. President Barack Obama has said he’s open to the idea of dropping the U.S. penny. The Canadian government earlier this year told the entire nation to just round prices to the nearest nickel.
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The half-dollar coin is another odd duck. Magicians might prefer the hefty 50-cent piece for coin tricks because audiences can see them more easily. Metro bus riders, however, used only 997 of them last fiscal year, less than three a day.
But the $2 bill? Metro collected 3,115 of them last year. That’s a tiny drop in the fare box, where transit riders deposited $15.5 million. Still, Metro inquired about programming the new fare boxes to recognize and accept $2 bills, said Metro spokeswoman Patti Beck. The manufacturer said that would require costly customized software. No other transit agency had requested it before. So Metro decided to skip on the $2 bills, Beck said.
She was surprised how often $2 bills turned up in fare boxes.
“I don’t even know where you get them,” Beck said.
Banks have them. The $2 note is still in circulation. More than 640 million of them have been printed since 1996, according to government data. But, compared to other denominations, the runs have been sporadic and small.
The government once had high hopes for the bill. A 1976 research paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., noted that the $2 bill “can save the Government, and therefore all taxpayers, money and increase the convenience of cash transactions.”
Now, the bill’s rarity is its main feature. People slip them in birthday cards. They keep them in wallets as talismans. Strip clubs use them for change to encourage better tips. A man in Chicago collects $2 bills that have flown in space with astronauts. Some people consider $2 bills lucky. For others, they are unlucky. Bettors at horse racetracks sometimes tear off one corner of the bill before plunking down a $2 bet.
In 1989, Geneva Steel in Provo, Utah, paid employee bonuses with $2 bills. As the bills flowed through town, the stunt demonstrated the plant’s economic importance. In South Carolina, Clemson fans stamp orange tiger paws on $2 bills and enjoy spending the notes, especially during out-of-state football games. Others groups, ranging from supporters of marijuana legalization to gun rights, have used $2 bills to showcase their causes.
Last week, a stack of fresh $2 bills sat on a back counter at Midwest Money Co., in St. Louis. A customer had purchased several pieces of jewelry in recent weeks and she always paid with piles of $2 bills, said salesman Jason Schulz. The store was unsure what to do with the bills.
“We don’t use them,” Schulz explained. “People look at them a little odd, like they’re fake.”
Now, with $2 bills banished from Metro buses, these odd bills will grow odder still.