Greater Greater Washington

SmarTrip office didn't communicate "use it or lose it," delays, or contract changes

Metro will put a band-aid on the problem of SmartBenefits going back to the employer at the end of the month by letting employers opt out of the new SmartBenefits arrangement and stick with the current system.


Photo by intermayer.

Under the current system, an employee "claims" SmartBenefits by downloading them onto the SmarTrip card at a fare machine. Any unclaimed benefits will go back to the employer at the end of the month, but if the employee has downloaded it all and not used every dollar, they can roll over the rest to the following month. Starting January 1st, riders will no longer have to download SmartBenefits, but any unused (not just unclaimed) benefits will go back to the employer.

For federal employees, that's the desired behavior. According to RAC members who work for the federal government, it's considered fraud to use even a dollar of "October" benefits in November, for example. Since federal employees get free transit, it's also not a big deal if the benefits go back at the end of the month; an employee who uses more or less transit from month to month could simply request an amount on the high side and give back whatever doesn't get used.

The problem arises for employees who make a pretax deduction. If unused benefits go back to the employer, the employer has to make sure that money gets back to the employee, which could be very complex. Therefore, Metro has decided to let employers opt out of the new system, retaining the rollover capability while also requiring employees to still claim SmartBenefits at machines as they do today and not using the "bins" at all. In the longer term, they plan to modify the SmartTrip system to accommodate both non-rollover and rollover options.

This issue seems to have caught SmartTrip staff by surprise. In fact, even at last night's RAC meeting they didn't quite seem to grasp the issue. Cyndi Zieman of the Office of SmarTrip kept saying that this "use it or lose it" simply continued current practice. That's true from the SmartTrip system's point of view and the employer's point of view, since it just treats all claimed benefits as having been spent, but it's not true from the rider's point of view, and Zieman didn't seem to be focusing on the rider experience.

If the SmarTrip team had shared their plans with the Board, the RAC, or the public earlier, someone might have noticed this problem. This has been in the works since January, when they modified the SmarTrip contract to divert some of the efforts on NextFare (passes, autoload, peak of the peak fares, and more) to this SmartBenefits project. But there was no Board presentation at that time, no RAC presentation, and no announcement explaining the details of the plans. Zieman told the RAC that their designs weren't secret, but it seems simply not to have occurred to them to ask anyone outside the group if this design was a workable one.

Nor did they communicate changes that put the NextFare upgrade timeline at risk. They announced a timeline last November, which specified passes and a website to check your balance by September 2009, and autoload along with the IRS compliance in December. But they never updated the timeline, even though, according to Zieman, they modified the contract in January. Zieman said that they knew by August or September that the NextFare upgrades were not going to happen this year after all, but still didn't tell anyone until October. And now, the best Zieman could tell us was that NextFare could come by next summer "at the earliest." She could give no specifics about what they could do, only what they could not do.

Finally, it's not clear that they had to put the bins ahead of NextFare at all. Zieman told the RAC that there would be no penalty from the IRS if Metro did not make this change now. It was simply an effort to help employers better comply with IRS rules. But it also comes at a cost: we don't have passes on SmarTrip, don't have autoload, and can't try out better fare options like "peak of the peak" pricing or even a basic SmarTrip discount on rail as there is on bus. The SmarTrip team made a decision to push those features back at the expense of the SmartBenefits upgrade. They should have consulted with the Board first, and announced it at the time, rather than ten months later.

Things happen that slow down development schedules. Engineering teams have to make tradeoffs. We still don't whether they could have done both. But as a former technical product manager, I know that there's a lot of complexity under the hood of systems and more work than meets the eye. Zieman noted that they have to coordinate with all of the regional systems, like Ride-On, The Bus, ART, CUE, Fairfax Connector, and so on. However, what good product managers do is communicate. They discuss plans and designs proactively with stakeholders. They set a timeline, and then keep the customer updated about any slips in that timeline. Zieman and the Office of SmarTrip quite simply didn't do that, not when they modified the contract in January, not when they definitively slipped the schedule in August, and as long as they don't announce a new schedule, not now.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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This never even crossed their minds?

Yeesh.

by Alex B. on Nov 5, 2009 9:12 am • linkreport

GGW, thanks for your EXTENSIVE coverage on the signal issues in Montgomery County. I realize you only cover issues related to the way your friends commute (bike and foot, oh and Metro when that works), but some of us do in fact have to sludge through the Montgomery County morass. Your useful and timely coverage of this issue is noted.

by Sam P on Nov 5, 2009 9:28 am • linkreport

@sam,

I've never noticed GGW to be a place to get "breaking" news. This site always seems to be more focused on transportation planning and projects, not the daily ins-and-outs of commuter tie-ups. I'm sure WTOP.com is covering the traffic-lights fiasco in detail.

by chris on Nov 5, 2009 9:48 am • linkreport

Sam P,
GGW's response would be that car's are the problem and this event highlights the problems with sprawl and car dependence.

Not saying I disagree.

by sent to self on Nov 5, 2009 10:07 am • linkreport

I believe I have identified the problem: When you put the words "Good product managers" and "Metro" in the same post, the project is inevitably a failure.

But my real issue is this: there will likely be no consequences for Metro's incompetence. Not a single person, from planners at the Office of SmarTrip to the office of General Manager, will think twice about this screw up (no communication to the board or the public for nearly a year???). Tomorrow is another day and Metro will just continue with (sub-par) business as usual.

by Adam L on Nov 5, 2009 10:14 am • linkreport

What is happening at the end of the year with the amount that is already on my card? Is it grandfathered? Do they know how much my employer contributed and how much I have contributed? I am still very confused by this whole shift...

by Tim Fry on Nov 5, 2009 10:21 am • linkreport

@Sam P,
Thank you for volunteering! If you'd like to submit a post wherein you extensively examine the Montgomery County signal failure, I'm sure David would consider running it.

I'm not sure if you're aware, but GGW contributors don't get paid. We don't have an editor who assigns us stories to write. And therefore, each of us dedicates our personal time to research and write articles. Many of us work and have social lives too. It's often hard to balance blogging with other aspects of our lives. So, it is to our dismay that, we can't cover every story in the region.

That's where you come in. If you see something in the region that you think we should, write it up and send it to David.

Of course, I'm not really sure how a computer meltdown controlling signal synchronization really has any bearing on GGW's mission statement:

"Greater Greater Washington is devoted to improving the vitality of Washington, DC and the walkable cities and neighborhoods in the Washington metropolitan area, such as Alexandria, Arlington, Bethesda, College Park, Rockville, Silver Spring, Tysons Corner, and others."

by Matt Johnson on Nov 5, 2009 10:36 am • linkreport

As for how a computer meltdown controlling signal synchronization relates to Greater Greater Washington, how about Ashley Halsey's statement in the Washington Post: "That a single computer failure can plunge an entire sector of the region into near gridlock underscored how fragile and overloaded the second-most congested urban area in the country has become."?

by Miriam on Nov 5, 2009 11:02 am • linkreport

I wrote about the meltdown. Here you go.

by BeyondDC on Nov 5, 2009 11:06 am • linkreport

OK, so there's going to be some new accounting that separates regular card balance, transit benefit balance, and parking benefit balance, so that unused benefit balance can be returned or taxed appropriately. But for each time you use the card, how does it know which account to take the fare out of? The WMATA press release indicates that each card can be linked to the three accounts, but how can this actually work without requiring transit benefit recipients to have one SmartTrip card for commuting and one for personal use?

by thm on Nov 5, 2009 11:08 am • linkreport

@Sam

You darned car commuter. How dare you suggest that another current mode of transportation used by a large portion of the region get coverage.

I think Sam's got a point that there hasn't been any coverage of the MoCo signal failure. I would also agree that this site tends to cover SLOW breaking news and evolving issues rather than afternoon transit coverage. There would definitely be some value in analyzing what caused the breakdown of the signals beyond what we've seen in the post. Obviously with the concurrent problems in the Metro computer system it speaks to lack of investment in redudant systems or failures of the redudant systems.

Nevertheless, the progressives are right to point out that if we have large percentage of users on say buses instead of cars, having signal failures might not be as catastrophic.

Just because many who read GGW are anti-car/pro-transit doesn't mean car commutting and how to improve that within the current transporation reality aren't relevant.

by Cullen on Nov 5, 2009 11:11 am • linkreport

I think the post is a good evisceration on the metro managers, but hey, not everyone is smart enough to work at google.

The real problem is the lack of respect Metro has -- from the top to the bottom -- for its customers. Hiring better managers isn't going to solve that.

by charlie on Nov 5, 2009 11:13 am • linkreport

thm, you raise a good point. In theory, your employer account will be depleted first during the month.

But that doesn't really work if federal workers are now encouraged to claim benefits at the maximum end of what they potentially could use, because they will end up using those benefits for personal trips.

In fact, in a total coincidence of timing, I just now received an email from my agency explaining this exact concern. The solution they have come up with is to provide a new Smartrip card intended solely for use in employer-subsidized commuting. Current smarttrip cards should be used solely for personal use.

by ah on Nov 5, 2009 11:44 am • linkreport

Oh, great, two cards? That's just crazy and defeats a lot of the convenience of the smart trip cards.

The federal rules seem to make this a lot more complicated than necessary. Why not just do the estimation for the trip from the station nearest the employee's house to the station nearest their work site? And why not make the estimation daily rather than monthly? It's not as if the number of federal work days in a month is secret. The system should be able to do the proper monthly allocation automatically. And for that matter, why the hassle of having to take back money? We're really worried about amounts of money that, to the federal government, are about equivalent with a few pennies found under the couch cushions?

The whole program smacks of 'We're doing it but damn it we don't like it'.

by Distantantennas on Nov 5, 2009 12:29 pm • linkreport

For what it's worth, my employer made us us Metro's trip planner to print up the exact amount we need for each month when signing up for Smartbenefits this year. It even takes into account flex-time. I think the GAO is (rightly) cracking down on this.

As someone above said, it's still fraud if you take more than your commuting costs are because you'll end up using it for personal use. The way my employer does it is annoying but necessary to route out fraud.

by Federal Employee on Nov 5, 2009 12:38 pm • linkreport

Distantantennas -- the problem is that (1) agencies have you specify the benefit in advance, so it can be loaded, but (2) you may take leave during the month. So even if you figured out the daily commute cost for each employee, and multiplied by the number of working days for each month, then adjusted for alternative work schedule days off, you would still end up giving too much in benefits to employees who get sick or schedule leave after the first of the month.

So it seems that the costs of auditing are greater than the costs of simply having everyone put the benefits on a separate card with the forfeiture terms as described.

by ah on Nov 5, 2009 12:50 pm • linkreport

@ Federal Employees: You are a true Federal Employee. Stick to the rules no matter if we have to create a bureaucraZy that ends up costing more than the benefit of the tax break for users.

The proposed change in rules is inefficient, costly, frustrating and not a way to serve citizens.

by Jasper on Nov 5, 2009 12:53 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't it just be easier to have federal employees or whoever use the smartbenefit get an unlimited monthly pass? Then all this craziness goes away.

by Cullen on Nov 5, 2009 1:48 pm • linkreport

No, Cullen, because then they could use it for all sorts of purposes that aren't commuting.

by ah on Nov 5, 2009 1:53 pm • linkreport

@Cullen
Yes, that would be easier, but WMATA doesn't offer a monthly pass. Personally I think the IRS and the rest of the feds are targeting WMATA specifically because so many federal employees use it.

These IRS changes probably aren't going to be an issue for the majority of systems, since I would assume most regular commuters just buy a monthly pass. WMATA and BART are really the only ones affected since they don't offer montly passes (due to the complicated fare structure).

by cyclism on Nov 5, 2009 1:59 pm • linkreport

@ah

That's exactly my point. Using a hypothetical monthly pass, the feds or other employers can pay for the commute and for no marginal cost the employee can take transit whenever else.

by Cullen on Nov 5, 2009 2:07 pm • linkreport

For many rail customers, monthly passes (four weekly passes) are either inconvenient or not a good deal.

WMATA sells two rail weekly passes. The rail fast pass is $39.00 per week. If you commute all five days, your one-way ride has to be more than $3.90 for this pass to be a good deal. From Metro Center, even a ride to White Flint or Dunn Loring is not a good deal. So the regular rail pass is not a good deal except for the longest rides (out to Vienna or Shady Grove, for example).

Metro also sells a short rail pass. This pass is a good deal for shorter trips, but it's nearly impossible to use. It's $26.40 per week, which is a good deal for any trip of $2.65 or more. If you ride longer than that, you have to go to the addfare machine for each trip and add the remainder in change.

If you're a Federal Employee, you're not going to be able to get a subsidy for weekly passes unless they're a "good deal" (they cost no more than paying per trip), and for the case of the short rail pass, you're not going to be able to get a portion of your subsidy in change that you can use to upgrade your pass for every trip.

The upgrade for smartrip cards was going to make the short rail pass usable, because it would take the additional fare from your cash purse.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 5, 2009 2:19 pm • linkreport

Cullen, I didn't realize you were talking about hypotheticals.

But, yes, hypothetically speaking, a hypothetical monthly pass could also avoid this problem. Good luck getting that implemented by January 2010, though.

by ah on Nov 5, 2009 3:07 pm • linkreport

This proves the necessity of the RAC since management and much of the rank-and-file don't seem to care about those pesky things called customers.

by Eric Fidler on Nov 5, 2009 3:54 pm • linkreport

David - Thanks for your investigating on this issue. When first told of these changes a couple weeks ago our staff was perplexed on WMATA's hard line and short time frame on some of these issues and begin asking questions and making suggestions behind the scenes. We appreciate the good job you're doing in holding our friends at WMATA accountable. We're simply trying to help individual and corporate clients cope with the changes. We've got some good information for employers on our site I hope you can point people to: http://www.commuterpageblog.com/2009/11/changes-to-smartbenefits-are-coming-are-you-ready.html. Thanks,
Chris Hamilton
Commuter Services Chief
Arlington County Transportation

by Chris Hamilton on Nov 5, 2009 11:57 pm • linkreport

I wonder how much money Metro is going to lose by crediting employers at the end of every month. This seems exceedingly stupid from a financial point of view. It will be a headache for employers as well. And as others have noted, the kiosk lines will be horrendous unless benefits are loaded automatically.

by Matthias on Nov 6, 2009 9:34 am • linkreport

My employer just sent out a notice that we will be joining the new smartbenefits system. We only get the tax benefit, not the free transit. Any funds left over at the end of the month will be frofeited. Arrgh!

Our benefits coordinator said that metro does not believe the opt-out functionality will be available by Jan. 1. Do you have any news on this?

by Chris on Nov 11, 2009 4:45 pm • linkreport

The biggest problem here is that now you have to join the line on the 1st of each month waiting to add your Benefits. 15-20 Minutes, easy. No explanation of what to do if you start with a bus (say, FxCo Connector) before the Metro. Of course, I could just use my second/personal Smart Trip card for that. Besides the "fraud" we perpetrate by using Metro too much (?!) what's the problem here? For all intents and purposes, aren't federal workers and their subsidies Metro's "dedicated funding source" they whine so much about?

by Jim on Oct 26, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

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