By David Welna, November 29, 2013
Commuters wait on the platform as a Metro-North train arrives in Bridgeport, Conn.
Unless Congress acts quickly, taking mass transit to work is about to get more expensive for some people.
the past four years, public transportation users and people who drive
their cars to work and pay for parking have been able set aside up to
$245 a month in wages tax free if they're used for commuting costs or
The transit tax break expires at the end of
the year. So starting Jan. 1, the benefit for riders will be cut nearly
in half — to $130 a month. Drivers, on the other hand, will get a
slightly bigger break as their parking benefit rises to $250.
doesn't make sense at all, the fact that you get a bigger tax break for
driving your car than riding a train," says Dan Smith, who lobbies
Congress on tax issues for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. He
says many commuters don't realize that the parity for transit and
parking tax breaks vanishes in the new year. But they soon will.
Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who rides his bike to work, is sounding the alarm.
heard lots of talk about fiscal cliffs, a dairy cliff, but at the end
of the year, we are facing a transit commuter cliff," he says.
has rounded up five House Republicans and 44 fellow Democrats to
co-sponsor legislation that would keep the parking subsidy, which by law
is automatically renewed, equal to the transit subsidy, which requires
congressional approval every year:
"You might tilt it the other
way and provide greater benefit for people who are having less impact
on the planet," he says. "But the fact is, this is embedded, ingrained
and accepted, so we want to at least just have transit parity for the
full range of commuter options."
Indeed, eliminating or even reducing the parking subsidy is a bipartisan non-starter in Congress.
own view is there are some people — many people — who don't have the
luxury of being able to take transit," says Sen. Barbara Boxer,
chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
The California Democrat defends the tax break for people who drive to work:
don't agree that you should put one group against the other," she says.
"I think we should encourage fuel-efficient cars, and if someone really
needs their car for work, I don't have a problem with saying, you know
what, there's enough expense here, we can make sure that this isn't
exorbitant for you."
That's unfortunate, says Elyse Lowe. She's
one of Boxer's constituents as well as the executive director of Move
San Diego, a group advocating smart growth in that city. For Lowe, it
makes sense to subsidize public transit users, not drivers:
is at the heart of getting people to change their travel behaviors
through economic incentives," she says, "and typically people don't
actually look at their own personal behavior until there's some sort of
economic reason to do so."
Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon
Whitehouse agrees. He's skeptical, though, that Congress can act in
time to keep the transit break on par with the parking subsidy.
certainly doesn't make sense is to favor that over using public
transportation. But given the general level of blockade of anything and
everything by our Republican friends around here, I can't promise that
we'll get to that."
Making parity between transit and parking subsidies — one more casualty of congressional gridlock.