PoPville PSA/Query – If there is a shutdown, Can Gov’t Employees Use Their Smartrip Cards?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

“Dear PoPville,

Possible PSA: I don’t have a link but federal employees need to be very cautious about using their SmarTrip cards if the government shuts down if they have transit benefits loaded onto them. We’ve been told that some agencies will monitor usage, so folks should try to use cash or acquire a personal SmarTrip card so this doesn’t cause any issues if the government shuts down.”

Anyone else hear this?

44 Comment

  • We got guidance saying exactly that: not to use the SmarTrip linked to SmartBenefits account during the shutdown and to use a personal card instead. No word on whether we can use it to go into the office 10/1 to perform “shutdown activities”, anyone know?

  • I don’t if that’s true or not and thankfully I’m not a fed, but if this is true it’s IDIOTIC! Your personal purse is only accessible after you’ve spent your transit benefits, so you’d be making people that have already paid to add money to their personal purse buy another card and put more money on it. That would be paying twice.

    • At least at my agency, we’re not supposed to put personal money on our government issued smarttrip card unless it is needed to get to/from work. For example, one night a week I go somewhere other than home after work and it costs more than my normal commute. I’m allowed to add money to cover the difference. We’re not supposed to add money for personal trips. And they tell you that you can lose that money if you need to stop using metro (like I did for awhile when I had a medical issue and was forced to drive to work). They took the card and I lost the little personal money had on it for the extra cost for the one day a week.

      • Oh wow, that’s incredibly annoying. I get a transit benefit at my office, but we don’t have those restrictions.

      • If your agency actually gave you the card then I think this it’s totally reasonable that they ask you not to use it during a shutdown (or for personal travel in general). I assumed people were adding smartbenefits to their personal SmarTrip cards; is that not the normal case?

        • Not sure what is normal. For many years we put smartbenefits on to our personal cards. Then about 2 years ago the agency went to a system where it issues cards to all employees using smartbenefits. I just kind of assumed all agencies were doing that.

          So, it is their card. And we sign a statement that we will only use it for commuting and shouldn’t put personal money not needed for commuting on it. There is also a statement that any personal money will be lost if the employee no longer participates in the program.

          • Thanks, I didn’t realize agencies were doing that, but at least it makes it easy to not use your smartbenefits in a situation like this.

      • what if the gov didn’t issue you a smart trip card? We buy our own cards and then link them to our benefits account….?

      • I think wherever you go when you leave your office is not a “personal trip”, it’s transportation away from work. Now after you go home from x location, now that is a personal trip.

  • well there isnt anything that can stop them technically

    they just wont be getting more funds to replentish the cards (provided that govt is still shutdown at that time)

    • That sounds more correct. I cannot see how the federal government could prevent usage of a SmartCard. If you have funds waiting, tho, today would be the day to download them onto the card.

  • gotryit

    I’ve gotten no guidance on it. But I only have a personal smartrip card – the government didn’t pay for it and can’t tell me what to do with it. They’re welcome to disable the “government purse” side of it so that anything I use comes from my personal side. But really, I highly doubt that they’d go through that effort.

    • If you get SmartBenefits I think you actually did agree to only use it for travel to and from your job, so technically they probably can tell you how to use it in a case like this. As you say, whether they bother to do so is questionable.

      • gotryit

        I’d be happy to use my personal side, but I can’t unless the government side is somehow disabled.

        When I swipe my card tomorrow, I’ll squeeze my eyes shut and hope that the money comes from my personal side. Or I’ll just bike everywhere because F it, it’s really nice out and I don’t want to get on a train.

  • This does seem stupid to me if true. On the plus side, I think the cost of a new SmarTrip card drops to $2 tomorrow, so at least it’ll be a cheaper inconvenience to pick up a 2nd card (plus then you’ll have a spare in the future).

  • Actually, I already use separate cards for personal and transit use since the government subsidy is only supposed to be used to cover commuting costs.

  • That is incorrect. I am a Fed and we were advised by our agency transit benefits office that we can use the Smart Trip. Smart Trip cards have what is called “purses”. So if there is a shutdown tomorrow, the transit benefit purse will be deactivated but our personal purse will not. So if you have your own money loaded in the card, this is what will be used.

    • We have not been told that; in fact, we’ve been told that the system isn’t sophisticated enough to deactivate the transit benefit purse. We’ll see when we come in the morning.

    • Just as we were informed by our agency, our transit purse was activated and loaded with October funds on Tuesday, so I went ahead and bought one of the new cards.

  • Agree that it’s dumb. We were told that there’s no way for the system to pull from the personal ahead of the benefits, so the only way to not get it charged on the government benefits would be to use your own card. Ugh

  • The mass transit subsidy is funded through appropriations so they are funded until today. You should have a month’s worth of benefits tonight.

  • I am pretty sure this is a non-issue because tomorrow is the day where your purse is emptied and reloaded. Without funding, it should simply not reload tomorrow, so your government purse will be empty and your personal purse will be the only one with money in it.

    • What do you guys mean by purses? Do you have two different smartrip accounts on the same card somehow?

      • Basically yes, though they’re not really separate ‘accounts’. Think of them like pockets in your jeans – your personal travel money is in the left pocket and your smartbenefits is in the right pocket. You use all the money in the right pocket before you start spending from the left pocket. Others feel free to critique my analogy as needed.

  • I’m not a fed either, and don’t have SmartBenefits. But, aren’t the SmartBenefits part of your benefits that have already been disbursed to you, like salary already in your bank account? Do you have to give back the SmartBenefit value on your card if/when you leave the government? Why would you be unable to use a benefit that has already been awarded? It’s not like you were forced to use them for commuting purposes only, right? If this is the case, it’s totally idiotic. I really feel for the “non-essential” government employees. (I’d call my congressional representative to complain, but -oh yeah- I don’t have one.) Good luck folks.

    • I think that depends on whether you’re a fed or not. I’m not a fed, and I add money to my SmartTrip card via pre-tax contributions through HR. So it is my money, coming out of my salary, but b/c it’s not taxed I am essentially paying a bit less to ride metro by putting money on my card this way. But for feds, they get a transit benefit that is separate from their salary (and tied to their actual commuting costs, at least at some agencies) and can be used only for getting to and from work. And it’s use-or-lose, so if it is not spent by the end of the month the money goes back to the federal government.

    • When I transferred from one federal agency to another in the middle of a month, I had to reimburse the first agency for the partial month’s transit benefits.

      And I couldn’t get transit benefits at the second agency until the beginning of the following month. So it was a total lose-lose situation for me.

      • I’m sure that whatever benefits you got from transferring (higher salary, more interesting work, whatever) more than outweighed having to pay to get to work for a couple of weeks. If not, you got totally screwed, dude.

        • It was a minor annoyance, not a big huge deal. (I was posting primarily to answer Anonymous 3:25’s questions “Do you have to give back the SmartBenefit value on your card if/when you leave the government? Why would you be unable to use a benefit that has already been awarded?”)

    • “It’s not like you were forced to use them for commuting purposes only, right?”
      -Actually, we are required to use them only for commuting purposes.

  • justinbc

    If you’re excepted, use it. If not, don’t. It’s really a very simple answer.

  • I had no idea that you were supposed to use separate cards for SmartBenefits and personal travel. Doesn’t that almost defeat the purpose of being able to have separate purses on the same card? Has anyone successfully switched SmartBenefits to a new card while retaining the personal purse on an existing card? I don’t want Metro to treat my card as lost and transfer both purses to the new card.

    • I’m not sure you have that right. Based on the information in this thread you should use separate cards only if your employer actually gave you a SmarTrip card to use for smart benefits. If that’s your case I would confirm it with your HR dept (or whoever is in charge of your smartbenefits) and then just buy a new card for personal use. If that’s not your case then you probably don’t need separate cards. But still you should check with your HR dept for guidance since there doesn’t seem to be a blanket policy on this.

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