Complaints spur Metro to delay SmartBenefits changes a year

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

Metro will delay for a year the proposed changes to its SmartBenefits program after riders protested that they were unfair -- particularly one that would have had unused money reverting from their pretax payroll allocation to their employers.

The revisions were supposed to take effect Jan. 1. But Metro officials said Thursday that after hearing from commuters and employers, who also complained that the proposed changes were confusing and announced too late, they decided to push back implementation to give employers more time to figure out how they will administer the plan.

During an online chat two weeks ago, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said the agency was rethinking the timetable, noting that "we have heard a lot of comments from customers about this change in SmartBenefits."

The transit agency had said the changes were needed to comply with IRS guidelines about how to protect the benefit system from misuse. Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that officials met with representatives from the IRS this week and that the IRS "seemed to understand the challenges we face" in meeting the Jan. 1 deadline. Metro plans to formally request an extension, she said.

More than 200,000 riders and 4,000 employers in the region participate in the program, which allows employers to assign the dollar value of workers' 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 would have required workers to tell benefits administrators how much to set aside for transit rides and how much for transit parking, a new distinction. Starting in January, transit and parking benefits would have been downloaded directly to the riders' SmarTrip cards when they swiped them at the fare gates, the bus fareboxes or the exit gates in transit parking areas.

But one provision drew a lot of concern: At the end of each month, unused transit and parking benefits would be returned to the employer. Under the system now, unused benefits roll over. That particularly upset private employees who set aside a portion of their salary for a pretax allocation to SmartBenefits. That money belongs to riders and should not be returned to employers, they said. The federal government, one of the largest participants in the program, subsidizes employees' transit benefits.

"I am very happy to hear that this change is being postponed," a commenter wrote on The Washington Post's Get There blog. "My employer just started talking about these changes this week and informed us that they would not be returning any funds that may be credited back to them."

Employers have also said they did not receive enough notice about Metro's changes.

Although Thursday's decision will be welcomed by many employees and employers, it might come too late for employees who have made their January elections or for companies who canceled their SmartBenefits program because of the changes.

David Alpert, a member of the Metro-appointed Riders' Advisory Council and editor of GreaterGreaterWashington.org, a blog about transportation and development issues, has criticized Metro's SmarTrip office for not preparing the public sooner.

"More frustrating is the fact that SmarTrip staff have known this for some time, but didn't tell the [Metro] board, the [Riders' Advisory Council], or the public," he wrote in a letter to board members this month.

With the changes, riders would 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. Those benefits are now combined and loaded onto the card, either at vending machines at Metrorail stations or at fareboxes on buses.

Under the new system, the card will "pull" payments from either the transit or parking purse automatically as riders use Metrorail fare gates, 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.

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 in that personal purse remains on the card.

Metro officials said Thursday that the one-year delay might allow them to speed up the timetable for other SmarTrip improvements that have been repeatedly postponed.


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