Transit benefits can be a balancing act for Metro riders

(Bill O'leary)
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Thanks for the information [Commuter page, Dec. 5] on changes in transit benefits. My question is, how will the card holder know the balances in the three sections of her SmartTrip card? Will this information display at the fare machines where you purchase value? At the fare gates? Online? I haven't seen this topic addressed anywhere in the paper and haven't received any information at work.

Terry Wittig, Germantown

DG: One thing I assured transit users in the Commuter page Q&A was that I would not be able to answer all their questions about the upcoming SmartBenefits changes in that space. So let's talk more about them, starting with Wittig's good question about how to see the balances remaining on the SmarTrip card. What should you look for next month, as the changes start to take effect?

Metro says that when riders get to the rail stations the first week in January, they should go to the vending machines and download their benefits as they usually do. When they go to the fare gate, or to the fare box on a bus, and tap their SmarTrip card, the LED display should show the monthly balance in the rider's transit benefit account. That's the benefit money that the rider and the rider's employer assigned during December for use when riding the trains and buses.

The rider also might have assigned some benefit money to use in paying for parking at Metro lots and garages. That amount won't show at the fare gate or fare box. Instead, the parking benefit balance should appear on the display at the parking gate.

Although riders still have monthly benefits remaining to be spent, they will not see any indication at the fare gate, fare box or parking gate of the separate amount that they loaded directly onto the card at a vending machine or bus fare box.

There will be ways to see the amount the rider placed in that general fund: Go to a fare vending machine and tap the card on the SmarTrip target, or create a SmarTrip card account online, using Metro's Web site at .

This is not ideal, especially for January, when people will be trying to understand the new system. The monthly transit and parking benefits will be used up at different rates. (A rider who parks at Shady Grove might pay $10.40 for a round-trip commute to Metro Center but only $4.75 for the day's parking.)

That differential was all right when we had to remember only one number: the lump sum on the card. Now, riders will be trying to track the decline of their transit and parking sums as if they were two separate bank accounts.

Riders don't have to worry about how much is in the card's general fund until they get down to the bottom of their benefits. Once a rider has exhausted either the transit benefit or the parking benefit for the month, then the new system will automatically tap the rider's general fund to pay for the next ride or the next park.

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