Fiscal Cliff Legislation Equalizes Transit Tax Benefit

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LIRR commuters (photo by @MSG via flickr)

After a year of lobbying, transit advocates finally won.

As part of legislation passed Tuesday, pre-tax benefits for transit are now on par with parking benefits. Individuals who get commuter benefits from their employers can now look forward to (about) $240 a month. The measure is particularly meaningful to suburban commuters, who can easily spend more than that amount on transit.

Note section 203.

The back story: on December 31, 2011, legislation equalizing transit benefits expired. So for 2012, transit riders received a $125 monthly benefit, although parking remained at $240--a thorn in the side for politicians from transit-dependent states. Last March, New York Senator Charles Schumer authored legislation to re-equalize the benefit, but it wasn't acted on until the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Transit advocates hailed the legislation. "We've been pushing for transit equity for months," said Rob Healy, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association. "From our perspective, we felt it was very, very important that the federal tax code not bias one mode versus another." He added: "You shouldn’t be making your choices based on a tax code which treats parking better than it does transit."

Veronica Vanterpool, the head of the Tri State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for transit riders in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, said  when the benefit expired, "it was a de-facto tax increase for transit commuters. It's ludicrous that Congress would incentivize driving over public transportation. So we are particularly pleased that this was restored...we know a lot of our region's senators have really pushed for that."

Vanterpool said about 700,000 people in the tri-state region take advantage of the benefit. And: it's retroactive to January 1, 2012, although the mechanism for calculating those past benefits hasn't yet been determined.

But the current benefit also expires at the end of 2013 -- meaning transit advocates must begin spooling up again.

“It is our hope that in the new Congress, legislation will pass to make the public transit commuter benefit parity permanent,” said APTA president Michael Melaniphy. Vanterpool echoed that sentiment. "Moving forward," she said, "we need to make sure this is a permanent restoration and that we're not dealing with this battle every year."