Regular Metro commuters may be surprised Tuesday when they pay their first fares in the new year.
All riders who get SmartBenefits from their employers will receive their monthly money automatically at the faregate or bus fare machine, instead of needing to load it at the station vending machines.
But riders also may notice that the value they had left over from 2011 looks like it has disappeared.
Changes for 2012
• Autoload money: Riders don't need to go to the vending machines to add money or SmartBenefits to their SmarTrip cards. The SmartBenefits perk -- either as pre-tax payroll deduction or a direct benefit from employers -- is now loaded at the start of each month when riders pass through the faregates or touch the card to the bus farebox. Riders also can add money online that will load automatically when the card touches the fare target.
• SmartBenefits limits: The federal transit benefit dropped from a maximum of $230 a month to $125, while parking benefits jumped to $240.
• Division of funds: SmarTrip cards now have up to three "purses" for riders' funds. Benefits given by employers are kept separate for transit and parking, while money kept in a third "personal" purse can be used for either parking or trip fare. Riders can add money to the personal purse.
• SmartBenefit rollover: If riders don't use all of their SmartBenefits by the end of the month, they could lose any excess money. It's up to the riders' employer whether the money stays with the riders' accounts or gets kicked back to the company.
Still have questions?
• For SmartBenefits help: Call 202-962-1326, select option 3. (Mon-Fri: 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.)
• For SmarTrip: Call 888-762-7874 (Mon-Fri: 7 a.m.- 8 p.m.).
Fear not, the money isn't gone. The SmarTrip cards now have three "purses" instead of one account, but riders cannot see all the amounts at the faregate or even the fare vending machines.
The changes are part of multiple revisions for 2012 to the plastic farecards and SmartBenefits that some 270,000 local riders use. The results are both good and bad news for riders.
Following Internal Revenue Service rules created in 2006, Metro separated the benefits for transit fares from the money used for parking. So all SmarTrip cards now have three purses of money: transit, parking and personal money that can be used for either Metro trips or parking once the other purses are depleted.
Riders can see their balances online. But they cannot see them all at once while on the system. Instead, they can view the transit balance at the faregate; the parking balance at the Metro garage exit; and the personal value amount can be seen at the vending machines.
New this year, as well: The limit for federal transit benefits has dropped from $230 a month to $125, while parking benefits jumped to $240. Most federal workers and some private-sector workers receive the benefit outright as a perk, while others get it as a pre-tax deduction from their paycheck.
Congress could take action, but riders are likely stuck with the current limits until at least March.
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Another surprise may be coming in February. Commuters could keep any excess money from 2011, rolled over from their accounts into 2012. But in the new year, leftover money at the end of the month may disappear from the parking or transit purses.
"An employer can opt to have unused funds returned to them at the end of the month, or allow the fund to roll over for future use," explained Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.
So riders may want to set their SmartBenefit limits lower than they expect to need for their regular travel each month.