1276783468clipper card.jpg3:30 PM: One of the benefits to the Clipper transit card, we’ve been frequently told, is it’s ease of use — you have one card that you “reload,” using your money or, in the cases of many, commuter checks, a service offered by many employers in which a pre-tax portion of your salary goes to paying for transit use. It’s super-duper easy to load those benefits onto your card, the Clipper site tells you. So why are users of commuter checks getting messages saying that Clipper wants to start charging them $2 a month to use their benefits?

“Clipper will begin billing a $2.00 service administration charge for all Clipper Card orders beginning with the March 2011 benefit month” reads emails sent to at least two Appeal readers by Commuter Check Direct. “This charge will automatically be assessed to your March benefit order and will be charged monthly for every successful load of your Clipper Card.”

“Am I getting charged $2 a month basically for using Clipper (and it’s the only option out there…)?” one reader asked. Another said “$2 a month? For what? why? We have to use Clipper now, I can’t use a normal fast pass? This seems like some bullsh*t to me.”

It does sound like some bullshit! And since the Clipper Card site says nothing about a monthly fee, the first thing I did was call John Goodwin, spokesperson for the MTC and the go-to guy for all Clipper questions.

“This fee is not being charged by Clipper or the MTC” he said, and seemed shocked and a little disappointed to hear that Clipper customers were being led into thinking it was. “This fee is coming from the benefit administrators, and we’re working to resolve it.”

Apparently Cubic (which owns Clipper), charges benefits administrators to participate in the program. When administrators made the move to start passing that charge on to folks like our readers, Cubic and the MTC began trying to “find resolution to some contract questions” because “we don’t want to see riders getting charged for this” Goodwin said.

So why did the commuter check provider’s message suggest that the fee was coming from Clipper, and not them? Goodwin doesn’t know, and Commuter Check Direct isn’t saying — when I called them to get comment, as soon as I said I was with a newspaper, they hung up on me. Good times!

“We’re working, I don’t want to say ‘frantically,’ but hard on this, to reverse this before March” says Goodwin. As always, we’ll keep you posted, until then, transit expert Akit has posted some alternative options for commuter check users in the comments.

Update 4:14 PM: Oh, this is fun: we’ve gotten our hands on an email sent by Commuter Check to the HR folks at companies that use their services earlier this week. It says, in part:

You are receiving this communication because one or more of your participants order products loaded directly onto a Clipper Card. As we notified you in December 2010, I’d like to remind you of the $2 administration charge that will be assessed to all Clipper loads beginning with the March 2011 benefit month. I’m writing to ask your assistance in ensuring that these charges are applied as per your directions.

If your company has elected to absorb these charges on behalf of the participants, please email me immediately indicating so. Please be sure to include your company name and confirmation that these charges should NOT be applied to participants. I ask that you respond ONLY if your company would like to absorb these charges. Otherwise, these charges will be assessed to the participants as part of their transit orders.

Communications to participants regarding this change was not triggered as previously indicated. This communication will be sent on Thursday, February 3rd. Please respond to this email if you do NOT wish to have your participants receive the communication; see below for a copy of the text.

The text referred is the same email folks are telling us they received this afternoon, that we quote above, right before the section where users call bullshit. Yeah, the one where they say this is a fee from Clipper.

What does the above memo prove, other than that if you got the email, your company is one that elected NOT to absorb the $2/person/month fee? Not much, I admit. But it’s interesting to see the background on these things, so I wanted to share it with y’all.

I also passed it on th MTC spokesperson John Goodwill — if he has any response to it, I’ll let you know.

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the author

Eve Batey is the editor and publisher of the San Francisco Appeal. She used to be the San Francisco Chronicle's Deputy Managing Editor for Online, and started at the Chronicle as their blogging and interactive editor. Before that, she was a co-founding writer and the lead editor of SFist. She's been in the city since 1997, presently living in the Outer Sunset with her husband, cat, and dog. You can reach Eve at eve@sfappeal.com.

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