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Metro issues statement on SmartBenefits

The transit authority issued a formal announcement Monday confirming the news that had trickled out Wednesday and Thursday: The changes in the SmartBenefits program have been postponed.

SmartBenefits seminars that were to have explained the changes to confused employers so they could explain them to their confused employees have been canceled. "Federal and private employers will receive formal notifications of any further changes," the Metro statement said. The transit authority is asking the IRS for a year's extension on implementing the new system for giving out and monitoring the benefit money.

While Metro did the right thing in postponing the changes that baffled many thousands of SmarTrip card users, this whole episode was just plain weird.

The start and end this fall came at us as though they were minor bookkeeping events. In between, Metro created an uproar among its best customers, the ones who ride transit so routinely that they put in the paperwork to obtain long-term transit benefits.

Even the credit card companies have more to say to us when they change the terms of the card agreements, starting with, "Your business is important to us."

Whether you get SmartBenefits as a pure benefit over and above your salary, or you have your employer take money out of your salary for a pre-tax transit benefit, it's a great deal for riders. But for the transit authority, it's an even better deal: It's an enormous indirect subsidy of Metro operations by federal taxpayers.

So if you're Metro, you not only want the program to run well, you want to look good doing it.

Metro had a long time to figure out how to do this right, and it didn't. It sprang the confusing changes on employers and employees at about the time the employers and employees had to start making decisions about them -- maybe later, in some cases.

And it also announced that those other things we were going to add to make the SmarTrip cards better -- things like letting regular customers add the value of passes to their cards -- well, we've spent so much time on this IRS thing that we haven't spent enough time on the thing you actually want, so we're going to delay that again.

About those changes, the transit authority statement today says: "Metro is working to accelerate the additional upgrades that will make bus and rail passes available on the SmarTrip card and will allow customers to add value to their SmarTrip cards online. A timetable for completion is being developed."

A speedy timetable for those changes would go some way -- not all the way -- to restoring confidence in a system that now badly needs a confidence boost.

By Robert Thomson  |  November 23, 2009; 5:19 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, SmarTrip, SmartBenefits  
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This really shows the amazing disconnect between Metro managers and the riding public.
Metro plain and simply doesn't get their passengrs, unless they are metro or Federal employees, who ride for free.
Metro needs a larger and more active rider's advisory council. They ned to be infomred of any change metro is even considering that could affect the public in any way, shape or form, no matter how minor. That way metro can be advised on how it actually affects the riding public.

Posted by: GlenBurnie | November 24, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

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