Metro plans to make changes to SmartBenefits program in Jan.

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Starting Jan. 1, Metro will make major changes in its popular SmartBenefits program that are designed to make transit more convenient, but information released so far has been confusing to employers and riders, who fear losing benefits.

More than 200,000 people in the Washington area participate in the program, which allows more than 4,000 employers to assign the dollar value of employees' monthly commuting benefits directly to their SmartBenefits accounts. Employees load the benefits onto SmarTrip cards, which they use to pay for Metrorail, Metrobus and regional bus fares; parking at Metro lots; and registered van pools.

The changes are mandated by IRS rules that require employers to keep transit and parking benefits separate. The rule was issued in 2006, but the IRS delayed implementation until Jan. 1 to give transit agencies time to modify technology. Metro's SmarTrip office has been working to upgrade its software by the deadline, officials said Tuesday.

As a result, other long-awaited customer-friendly improvements that were to be in place by year's end, such as making bus and rail passes available on SmarTrip cards, have been delayed until next fall so Metro can focus on meeting the federal mandate, officials said. The agency also has to delay plans to allow customers to add value online to SmarTrip accounts.

The changes will mean that riders will be able to set aside as much as $230 in transit benefits and the same amount in parking benefits in two distinct electronic accounts in a central location, not on the SmarTrip card. Currently, those benefits are combined and loaded onto the card, either at vending machines at Metrorail stations or at fareboxes on buses. Currently, any unused benefits roll over and remain on the SmarTrip card.

Under the new system, the card will "pull" payments from either the transit purse or parking purse automatically as riders use Metrorail faregates, fareboxes on buses or card readers at parking lots. Riders will no longer have to line up each month at vending machines to add value to their cards.

Separately, riders will also be able to store additional personal value of as much as $300 directly on a card to pay for parking or transit. Any unused amount will roll over and remain on the card.

But riders are already upset about one change: At the end of each month, any unused transit or parking benefits in the new electronic purses will be credited back to employers. Metro said that employees who contribute a portion of their pretaxed salary to the SmartBenefits program should contact the employer to determine how the employer will handle the unused portion of their pretaxed contribution.

That's not sitting well with some riders. "My employer doesn't contribute to my SmartBenefit fund -- it is all MY money," one commenter said on the Get There blog at "Why would Metro give MY money back to my employer?"

Others say the information posted on Metro's Web site and issued in a news release Tuesday is confusing.

Another poster on the Get There blog worried that in a month such as December, with fewer work days, riders would somehow lose out.

Lorraine Taylor, a manager in Metro's SmarTrip office, said credits returned to employers will help them direct employees on "how to reduce their allocations."

Metro is holding seminars for employers through January, raising concerns that relevant information won't be out in time for companies and employees to make needed changes by Jan. 1. For some private companies, it takes two months for SmartBenefits changes to be processed.

"This is placing a real burden on people who process payroll," another commenter wrote. The big issue for employers who provide pretaxed benefits is whether they are required to refund unused benefits. "I attended the October 20th SmartBenefits seminar and can tell you that there were very heated discussions regarding this new provision."

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