TRANSIT BENEFIT

Stimulus Fund Package Almost Doubles Allowance

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

Good news for transit riders: Starting Sunday, the monthly transit benefit allowance increases to $230 from the current $120, thanks to the recently enacted economic stimulus package.

The new federal legislation allows employers to subsidize their employees as much as $230 a month, or $2,760 a year, in public transportation benefits. Or an employee can receive the benefit as a pretax payroll deduction or some combination of the two.

In the Washington region, more than 189,000 employees from 400 federal agencies and 4,000 private employers use the benefit and participate in Metro's SmartBenefits program. The Metro program allows employers to assign a dollar value of each employee's monthly commuting benefit directly to their individual electronic SmarTrip cards. Employees take the cards to machines in Metrorail stations between the first and last day of the month to claim the benefit.

Riders can then use the benefit on Metrorail and Metrobus, to pay for parking in Metro facilities, on regional bus systems, registered van pools and on MARC and Virginia Railway Express. (Smart cards are not accepted by MARC or VRE, but commuters can have their benefits assigned and receive the tickets or passes they need.)

Although the new benefit kicks in Sunday, many employees aren't likely to feel its impact until April. Employers who participate in Metro's SmartBenefits program, for example, "will allocate the increase in March to be effective April 1," said Lorraine Taylor, who oversees the transit benefit program at Metro. If other employers have vouchers or other means of providing the benefit, "they can give it to their employees starting March 1," she said.

The benefit could boost ridership among commuters who have the longest and most expensive rides, officials said. On VRE, about 65 percent of commuter rail riders are federal employees who receive the free monthly transit subsidy. A $230 monthly subsidy would pay for a rider's entire commute on the Manassas line and all but $40 for Fredericksburg line riders traveling the farthest distances, said VRE Chief Executive Dale Zehner. A monthly pass between Manassas and Union Station costs $220.90; the monthly pass between Fredericksburg and L'Enfant Plaza costs $270.

"To me, there are three things that control ridership, and one of those things is fare," Zehner said. "I think there is a potential for an uptick in ridership because for anyone who is around rail lines, especially on the Manassas line, it becomes a free trip."

Average daily ridership for January was about 16,100 trips, up 8.4 percent from January 2008.

On MARC commuter rail, the costliest monthly commute is between Martinsburg, W.Va., and Union Station, at $330. On the highest-ridership Penn Line, the monthly pass between Perryville, Md., and Union Station is $175. About 50 percent of MARC train riders are federal workers, spokeswoman Cheron Wicker said.

Metro is holding a free seminar Wednesday for federal and private employers who want to learn about Metro's transit incentive program. The seminar will be from 8:45 a.m. to noon at Metro headquarters, 600 Fifth St. NW. Employers wishing to participate can register by clicking on SmartBenefits at http://www.wmata.com.

Staff writer Jennifer Buske contributed to this report.


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