Reaping Savings from the SAVE Award Easier Said Than Done

A Washington Metro train makes its way toward Union Station. A Washington Metro train makes its way toward Union Station. Susan Walsh/AP File Photo

The Obama administration is hoping to save $3 million annually by encouraging more eligible federal employees to take advantage of the senior citizen discount on public transit benefits, but implementation of the voluntary change remains a work in progress.

Last December the White House announced that the winner of the 2012 Securing Americans Value and Efficiency (SAVE) Award was Fred Winter, a program officer for the Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

Winter had noticed that when he turned 65 he was able to cut his Washington Metro fare in half for the year before eligibility for Social Security kicks in at age 66. “Federal workers who receive transit benefits, and who are waiting until they turn 66 to retire, have at least a year during which they could take advantage of the senior discounts, save the government money in their transit subsidies, and still have no loss in their effective benefits,” Winter explained.

In a recent issue of the Education Department’s staff newsletter Inside ED, he penned an essay describing his family’s Feb. 20 visit to meet President Obama in the Oval Office as a reward for having submitted the idea. And he added the detail that both he and Office of Management and Budget officials had independently calculated that the move could save $3 million annually.

One challenge, however, is that claiming the benefit is voluntary, not mandatory, and another is getting the word out. Officials with Washington Area Metro, which could lose out on the deal, were not even aware of the change, a spokesman told Government Executive.

The lead player for encouraging senior-age employees is the Transportation Department, which “manages the distribution of transit benefits for more than 100 federal agencies, though not the entire federal government, through the Transportation Services (TRANServe) program,” according to a statement. “Those agencies set their own benefit policies, but look to DoT for comprehensive information and best practices.”

On March 25, Transportation released a memo considered “an initial step toward implementation” of Winter’s SAVE award idea. It applied to “all DoT employees, and is available for use by other agencies that use TRANServe.”

On April 8, OMB sent all chief financial officers an alert, reminding them that they have a responsibility to implement SAVE Award proposals “to the extent practicable and relevant to the agency….Agencies should make certain that their certification process captures reduced senior rates for employees who are eligible,” it added, asking also for quarterly reports on progress.

At the Education Department, Winter said, there was a “general email to staff reminding them that this is a possibility. It was not presented as a mandate, but a means of potential savings.”

"Agencies are actively working to implement SAVE Award ideas included in the president’s budget proposals," an OMB spokesman said. "It is also important to note that agencies do not uniformly renew their transit contracts on the same date. Therefore, some agencies renewed their transit benefits for this year prior to announcement of the 2012 SAVE Award winner," making it difficult to gauge progress to date.

Dan Stessel, spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, told Government Executive that “No one here has heard of this.” But assuming that the $3 million figure applies nationwide, the effect in Washington “would be a faction of that, a relatively small number,” he said. “Some people are already taking advantage of the senior fare, which is split among all transit properties, and we’re only talking one year for all seniors.”

Hence, Stessel said, “We don’t believe it will have a significant financial effect” on Metro. “ Seniors are able to take advantage of discounted fares at 65, and as long as someone is eligible, they’re welcome to take advantage of it.”

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