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Posted at 3:45 PM ET, 12/ 6/2010

More questions on transit benefits

By Robert Thomson

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Thanks for the info Sunday on changes in transit benefits. My question is how will the cardholder know the balances in the three sections of her SmartTrip card? Will this info 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 yet and haven't received any information at work.
Terry Wittig, Germantown

I hope our Commuter page feature about the upcoming changes in SmartBenefits addressed some of your basic questions, but I was sure it wouldn't answer all of them. Your e-mails and your questions for my online chat today confirm that I was right. Here are some of those questions and my responses. But know going in that this will be a complicated transition over the next several months, and it's a very good idea to check with your employer's benefits office right now on some of these issues.

First, let's talk about Wittig's good questions. Most SmarTrip users have mastered a system in which they go to a fare vending machine at the start of the month and download their transit benefit, a lump sum they set through their employer and receive electronically through a program called SmartBenefits.

The basic system remains the same, but what the rider sees will be different. After the first of the year, you'll see your transit benefit balance on the LED display on top of the fare gate as you enter the rail system or at the fare box on the bus. (Come January, the most that will be is $120.)

If you set aside a certain amount for a parking benefit, you will see that displayed at the parking gate when you use your SmarTrip card. The limit for a parking benefit will remain at $230.

If you want to see how much money you've added to your SmarTrip card independent of the benefits programs, walk over to the fare vending machine and tap your SmarTrip to the circular target.

You can also register online to see what's in your SmarTrip account. Go to this page to create an account or log onto your existing account.

Here are some more Q's and A's.

Q. I don't normally take parking but occasionally I need to drive to Metro, so do I need to establish a small parking benefit so when it is used up, then I can add to my Smart trip general fund and I can add funds to parking? What happens if I didn't set up a parking account for January and I may need to drive to Metro? Can't use cash so what will happen? Wonder if Metro is prepared for this?

A. My concern isn't about Metro being prepared for this. It's about whether we transit users will be prepared for this. Whatever happens, Metro is going to be fine. Meanwhile, we may find our cards running out of value and getting stuck at fare gates, fare boxes and parking gates if we don't start figuring out right now what we need to put on our cards.

What you set aside for your transit and parking benefits is between you and your employer. (Employers have some flexibility in setting up their own programs.) But you'll want to start by breaking down your actual commuting costs for a month of transit riding and transit parking.

Here's one way to make a mistake: Let's say you ask your private employer to set aside $120 from your salary as your pre-tax transit benefit for January. On Monday, Jan. 3, you go to the vending machine at your Metrorail station and download the $120 onto your SmarTrip card, but you've got absolutely nothing else on the card.

When you return to the station at the end of your day, get in your car and drive to the exit gate, your SmarTrip card isn't going to have anything on it to pay for the parking.

You're going to want to add money directly onto the card at the vending machine to cover what ever your benefits don't cover.

Or you might get to Wednesday, Jan. 26, and realize you've miscalculated. You've run out of riding money. At that point, the far gate or fare box is automatically going to look for money that you added directly to your card. That's your general fund, and it can be used for either riding or parking.

Q. Do you know what happened to the plan to allow loading of Metrorail passes onto SmarTrip? It seems this has fallen completely off the radar recently. I am also anxiously awaiting the ability to load SmarTrip value online. I was hoping these changes would be rolled out in time for the upcoming changes in SmartBenefits, but it doesn't look that way.

A. That's still in the works, but don't count on it for the start of the new SmartBenefits system. So far, the only pass you can add to a SmarTrip card is the Seven-Day Bus Pass. The pass is activated on the first day of use and is valid for seven consecutive days. Riders can load two of those bus passes onto their SmarTrip cards at one time. The second is activated the first time it's used after the first one has expired.

The paper bus passes will continue to be sold through the end of December, and the last paper pass will expire on Jan. 1.

Q. I am still confused a bit. Will Metro be zeroing out any unused balance on your card each month that comes from an employer benefit? If so, will they distinguish between additional funds you added that are not employer benefit or pre-tax?

A. If my readers are confused only "a bit," we're making real progress. I expect we'll need to continue talking about this for weeks to iron out important details. But I do know this: Metro says it won't be zeroing out anything. If that occurs, it will be a decision made by individual employers. That's one reason I'm urging commuters to talk to their benefits people right now, so they can find out what the individual employer has in mind.

I fully expect that most, if not all employers who offer transit benefits in the form of a per-tax deduction from salaries will allow the benefits to roll over. But check.Otherwise, you'd have to keep your pre-tax deduction so low, that you'd be sure you'd spend it all within the month. (You can file a new benefits form with your employer to change the current allocation, but it probably won't take effect till at least the following month.)

One thing is for sure: Nobody is going to be zeroing out the money that you have or will add to your SmarTrip card. That money -- the money you add at the vending machine or the bus fare box -- will exist in a general fund on the card. That money can be used for transit riding or transit parking, once whatever benefit you receive in that category has been used up, and any part of the general fund you don't spend will roll over to the next month.

By Robert Thomson  | December 6, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Metro, Transit  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, SmartBenefits  
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