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Metro to postpone SmartBenefit changes

The changes that would have affected transit benefits for many thousands of riders will be delayed for a year, according to Metro officials.

Eastern Ave bridge.gif

The revisions, which caused widespread confusion among riders and among the employers responsible for administering the benefits, were to take effect in January.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. had signaled that the transit authority was rethinking whether to go ahead. During an online chat Nov. 6 on Metro's Web site, he said: "Over the past couple of weeks, we have heard a lot of comments from customers about this change in SmartBenefits. I've decided that we need to rethink the changes that we are making." This morning, the iMetro blog reported that Catoe had said at a Wednesday night meeting in Prince George's County that the changes would be postponed.

The transit authority said the changes were necessary to comply with IRS guidelines on how to protect the benefit system from misuse. The revised system would have required that riders tell their benefits administrators how much to set aside for transit rides and how much for transit parking. Starting in January, those benefits would have been downloaded directly to the riders' SmarTrip cards when they swiped them at the fare gates, the bus fare boxes or the exit gates in transit parking areas.

The provision that drew the most concern: At the end of each month, unused benefits would be returned to the employer. That particularly riled up private employees who set aside a portion of their salary for a pre-tax allocation to SmartBenefits. That's our money, they said. Why is that being returned to our employers?

Many other questions were raised, as you can see from my Nov. 9 online chat during which Metro's SmarTrip director, Cyndi Zieman, fielded readers' inquiries and comments about the changes.

Employers clearly did not know ahead of time about the postponement. Just before posting this blog entry, I got an e-mail from The Post benefits office explaining the impact of the now-postponed changes on those of us who take advantage of the pre-tax deduction. Now, we'll have a year to figure it out.

By Robert Thomson  |  November 19, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Metro , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, SmarTrip, SmartBenefits  
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I'm glad to hear that!

I put about 80% of my commute onto Smartbenefits - out of my salary. That allows for vacation/holiday/days when I didn't commute on Metro. Some months I add value to the card because I commute on Metro more than 80% of the time.

The propect of managing my Smartbenefits so I zeroed up each month was going to he tricky.

I was contemplating a second smart card that I'd put my non-Smartbenefit fare onto for those months when I run over my Smartbenefits.

The whole thing was too complicated.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 19, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

So was the change REALLY related to an IRS mandate, or did Metro use that as an excuse?

If the former, how could Metro shift into reverse ("postpone") without the IRS breathing down its neck?

Posted by: jgprentice | November 19, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I am very happy to hear that this change is being postponed. 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. The Benefits Administrator tried to compare it to the Flexible Spending Accounts that you use or lose. The problem with that is that you have a year to use a FSA. I would be fine if unused Smartbenefits money was returned to an employer at the end of the year because you could look at what you have in November and only need to adjust your withholding once per year to balance out. But, to try and balance it on a monthly basis is ridiculous. It would be crazy to try to account for times that I may not ride during rush hour or days I may or may not take the bus or vacation each month.

Posted by: SweetieJ | November 19, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I was not surprised to hear that WMATA figured all this out in January but apparently didn't tell anyone until October.

WMATA's motto: You are all mushrooms, you are to be kept in the dark and fed manure. (we don't trust you enough to tell you what is going on)

Posted by: KS100H | November 19, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Pay for your own ride to work, for Pete's sake. Taking this charity is embarassing.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | November 19, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

It's not charity. My SmartBenefits are deducted from my salary. If my employer kept my unused funds that would amount to my salary being reduced. That was the main problem with this plan: it didn't distinguish those who got transit subsidies from those of us who choose to have an amount withheld from our paychecks.

Posted by: Pearlsb4Swine1 | November 19, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

"So was the change REALLY related to an IRS mandate, or did Metro use that as an excuse? If the former, how could Metro shift into reverse ("postpone") without the IRS breathing down its neck?"


That's my question exactly.

Posted by: SilverSpring8 | November 19, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

According to this morning's WaPo article by Lena Sun, Metro officials met with IRS officials this week to discuss the delay. Metro still must formally request an extension from the IRS, who "seemed to understand the challenges [Metro] faces" in meeting the mandate by January 1, 2010 according to Metro spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.

Posted by: davohuang | November 20, 2009 8:48 AM | Report abuse

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