Thursday, January 8, 2009

you can't spell "transit" without "rant" (sort of)

Part of what got me back into carless commuting was the Transhare program. I had worked for a time as a government contractor, and I was hiring back in as a civil servant. One of the benefits I would pick up as a result was the availability of Transhare--a program where one's employer (in this case Uncle Sam) provides a subsidy to encourage using mass transit. Where I work, parking is tight, so the trade-off is that you get either Transhare or a parking pass. The timing was perfect, because our older car seemed to be approaching some steep maintenance costs if we kept it on the road much longer. Faced with the following options:
  • thousands of dollars in repairs
  • buying another car to put on the road
  • essentially free mass transit
it was a no-brainer. I figured out that I could walk about five minutes to the bus stop and get to my work site with only one transfer. It was a long commute--about two hours each way vs. 40 minutes to an hour by car--but I worked an early shift anyway, so I'd still be able to get home around 5:00. Besides, I could read or work on my laptop or sleep on the bus.

The way Transhare worked when I started, you filled out a form every six months with a signed estimate of your commuting costs for each month covered. Then, every two months you'd pick up an allotment of Metrocheks, which could be used like any other farecard on Metrorail, or loaded onto a SmarTrip card for use on Metrorail or Metrobus, or used as currency to buy other types of transit passes. In my case, I could hand them to the commuter bus driver in exchange for a ten-trip pass.

At some point, GAO determined that there was a lot of abuse going on--people selling their Metrocheks on Craig's List and eBay, etc.--and the program was modified to crack down. Here's where it starts to get interesting. One change was the justification form. Instead of estimating a total for each month, you now had to provide all of the calculations--where you travel, by what mode, the specific fare for a single ride, etc. I guess the assumption was that criminals were too lazy to make up the details, or too stupid to do so without getting tripped up. But one thing the new system meant was that you could no longer account for extended absences. With the old form, you were supposed to estimate your actual costs for each month. If you knew you'd be on vacation for three weeks or some kind of extended sick leave or out of town, you'd estimate a lower amount. With the new form, you couldn't do that if you wanted to. You could only give what it cost in a normal week of commuting. Also, on the old form, you could account for things like discounted passes (10-trip, weekly, monthly, etc.); on the new form, there was no way to calculate anything above the level of a single trip. So on both counts, most honest travelers were now forced to overestimate their travel costs.

Another change was that, presumably because the form was now more difficult to complete, you would only have to do it once a year. I suppose you could go out of your way to change your information in between--and certainly you would if your transit expenses went up--but if they went down, how many people would bother to submit a new form before it was necessary? In my case, our office went under renovations for a few months, during which time we all increased our telework. I wasn't sure how long the renovations would take or what would happen to my schedule afterward, so it seemed like a hassle to report my new travel costs. Besides, there's a limit to how much you can actually get per month, so I figured if my costs later ended up exceeding the limit I'd have a reserve I could use. If not, I could turn the Metrocheks in whenever I stopped participating. (I like the program and want it to continue--I have no interest in abusing it.) Besides, I'd have to submit a new form before too long anyway, right?

Then they came up with another change. Instead of everyone submitting their justification at the same time each year, it would now be done alphabetically by last name, spread throughout the year. As it turned out, they started in November or something (when we normally would have renewed), and my name fell in the previous batch (October or whatever). So I wouldn't submit my new form for another 11 months, on top of the 12 months it had already been. If I continued to telework for all that time, I'd accumulate a lot of extra Metrocheks.

Not to worry, though. There's one more change to report. This one came without any fanfare. In fact, it was almost by chance that I discovered it. According to the WMATA Web site, effective Dec 1, Metrocheks will no longer be issued (for some reason I just picked up another batch two days ago, but maybe they're a little behind). Instead they will issue vouchers specifically intended for buying fares that currently do not take SmarTrip--like, for instance, anything run by MTA (including the MARC commuter train and the commuter buses). But unlike Metrocheks, those vouchers cannot be used for anything else. They cannot be loaded onto a SmarTrip card, nor can they be used directly as Metrorail fare.

Now, I need to back up and cover one other new feature. At the same time that they changed the justification procedures, they also switched over to electronic payment of benefits as the default method. Where Metrocheks were anonymous, electronic payment would go onto a specific SmarTrip card, registered in the name of the benefit recipient. And once the value is added to the card, it's hard to get it transferred anywhere else. But because Metrocheks could be used for other transit services that were not set up to take payment by SmarTrip, they still had to provide the option of receiving payment by Metrochek. When you filled out your form, you would indicate the mode of transit and the corresponding kind of payment that you needed. No big deal--those of us who needed to use them for MTA could still load value onto the SmarTrip card for Metrorail or Metrobus.

But the new vouchers cannot be used for anything else. And at least the way they do things at my agency, you can only get your benefit in one form. I suppose there are people who work close enough to Union Station that they can commute solely by MARC. But I would guess that most people who ride the train also use another mode of travel--most likely Metrorail. Metrorail is not cheap, but the MARC is even less so. So, I'll be getting the vouchers I guess. Hopefully MTA will someday start taking payment by SmarTrip. In the meantime, I just got something more than a third cut from my benefit. It's still a lot cheaper than driving, but it's annoying that they can't run this program in a way that makes any sense.

I suppose the bright spot is that MTA is also discontinuing its 10-trip MARC tickets. So now I'll be paying more to ride the train and therefore getting a little more use out of my Transhare benefit than I would otherwise.

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