I've been thinking of riding the Virginia Railway Express, back and forth, to work for some time. My wife, who already rides the VRE for her commute to downtown Washington D.C., was always encouraging me to make the switch from driving to work to riding the train.
I had, in fact, started to check into how to begin the process and sign up to receive the stipend a couple of years ago.
That's where the difficulty started. I'm kind of like that commercial, I want to push the "Easy" button and have it happen. However, it didn't seem to me that anyone really knew the process or how to explain to me the step-by-step, here's how you do it, kind of advice I was looking for. The person I spoke to at that time gave me a website to check out and that was it. I didn't get the 'warm, fuzzy, feeling' I needed.
Also, I wasn't unhappy driving to work each day. At one point in my life, I lived on Long Island and drove daily into mid-town Manhattan for work. Traffic and drivers here are nowhere near as bad as in the New York City area, but, I digress.
In any case, I looked at the website, but it was confusing to me. I did see a contact number on the site and I called, but the person who answered wasn't sure of the process for Department of Defense civilians, as compared to other government civilians. From my point of view, the process was getting more confusing and convoluted, rather than easier.
In short order I decided that continuing to drive my car to work was the way to go.
Recently, however, my wife brought the subject of my VRE commute up again, as both a money and time saving device. I agreed to look into it one more time.
I found out that Staci Hill-Good, Plans, Analysis and Integration Office, is the new point of contact for garrison employees looking to use commuter transportation (bus, VRE, Metro train, etc) to and from work.
When I explained to Hill-Good about wanting to ride the VRE and my past frustrations, she told me that she had just taken on this responsibility but, if I was willing, I would be her 'test case' to figure out how to make this happen. I agreed.
Agreeing was one of the best decisions I've made since coming to Fort Belvoir.
Hill-Good started researching the 'How to' of signing up for the VRE and, a couple of days after we spoke, she sent an email link for the sign up site. The most surprising thing, for both of us, was that my immediate supervisor was the approving and authorizing authority.
I followed the instructions on the site and submitted the application, which only took about 20 minutes on my computer. Within a day of submitting, my supervisor received an email asking him to approve my request, which he did, as I was then authorized the VRE stipend. I went on the site again and claimed my stipends for the months of May and June. The added bonus, for me, is the stipend covered the entire cost of my VRE ticket. All I will have to pay is the cost of the gas driving to and from the train station.
That is not, however, the last thing you need to do.
In order to pay the stipend to the VRE, I needed a SmarTrip card (I already had one but you can buy them at any Metro stop) and to have it registered in my name. This is also done on line and, thanks to the advice of my wife who told me that it would be faster and easier to call SmarTrip customer service and ask them to walk me through the process; the whole thing took about 15 minutes on the phone and at my computer.
About one week after signing up, getting approved from my boss and registering my SmarTrip card, I received my monthly rider ticket in the mail from the VRE. I will make my first ride as a regular VRE commuter on Wednesday, the first day of May.
I am a little surprised at how much I'm looking forward to it. Those of us who drive on I-95 South know what traffic will be like on Thursdays and Fridays in the next few months, as cars from points north pass through on their way to vacation spots to the south. Traffic congestion will be bad, especially with the construction of the new HOT/HOV lanes down to VA-610/Garrisonville Road, near Stafford, potentially adding additional delays.
As of next month, I won't have to worry about that.