The Wild Card

January 6, 2012

If I could whistle, that’s probably what I would have been doing Tuesday morning when I swiped my SmarTrip card and noticed my January SmartBenefits had magically loaded on their own. But other folks I ran into were making much sadder noises.

At Farragut North, a woman was agitatedly explaining to a Metro employee that she had tried to add her monthly SmartBenefits at several Farecard & Pass machines, but they kept telling her “transaction canceled.” And the money she had last year was missing! A guy came over and started complaining about the same problem. Although it was barely the end of rush hour, the saintly WMATA worker attempting to explain the situation was running out of steam. “It’s been a day,” she told me.

Apparently, this scene played out across the Metro system during the Great SmartBenefits Freak-Out of 2012. There were angry Twitter postings about Metro messing up — shocker! — and reports that the customer service line was completely swamped. Several of my co-workers stormed into the office stewing about their commutes.

But, as I hope everyone’s figured out by now, it was all just a misunderstanding. The SmartBenefits transactions were canceled because the money was already on the card (hence, my desire to whistle). And the old money wasn’t missing — it was hiding. To comply with IRS rules, starting Jan. 1, WMATA divided riders’ accounts into three “purses.” There’s one with your transit benefits, another with your parking benefits and a third for your personal stored value (and what you had on your account at the end of the year). The amount you see at the fare gates is just what’s left of your transit benefits.

There’s nothing sinister about this new arrangement, but the switchover could have been handled more smoothly. Even Ben Schumin, a 30-year-old self-described “Metro nerd,” was thwarted when he tried adding his SmartBenefits at Glenmont and Dupont, and didn’t realize why until he arrived at work. “I got the emails [from WMATA] about the changes, but I never read them,” he admits. I have a few friends who claimed they never got the message at all. It might have helped if Metro had posted signs explaining the new policies this past week.

And I still don’t understand why the purse system precludes us from having fare gates that show you the combined amount in your transit and personal purses. That number would make it easier to know when you really need to add cash, especially if you’re a bus commuter who has to go out of your way to do it. There’s also a quirk in the system that affects Baltimore residents like me. We can use our SmarTrip cards on Charm City’s subway, buses and light rail, but the money comes out of our personal stored value purse rather than our transit benefits.

I’m not saying that SmarTrip cards and SmartBenefits are stupid. But they could stand to study a little harder.

Missing Link

Have you been taking Metro all week but have yet to see your SmartBenefits? And did you never receive any emails about the auto-load changes? I might know why. This happened to several Express staffers who hadn’t registered their cards at Smartrip.com. Although you could get benefits in the old days without signing up, you can’t anymore, so it’s time to hand over your info. Besides, if you lose or break your card, you’ll be able to claim your cash. v.h.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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