From the time I first had the option of using public trans- portation to get to work, I’ve eagerly taken advantage of Commuter Check.
That was, until my company decided to stop subsidizing the program with about $33 of the maximum $110 per month that the federal tax code allows commuters to spend, tax-free, on transit fares.
I’m sure they had their reasons, and I won’t quibble with them. One of the side-effects of that change was to make everybody re-apply for Commuter Check if they wanted to get the pre-tax advantage even if there wouldn’t be any subsidy.
I’m not very good at applying for anything, so my Commuter Checks stopped coming as our office moved to 1.7 miles from the nearest BART station and Amtrak station and I started doing a lot more driving. I’m not blaming the lost benefit on my change in commuting habits, but I looked around recently and decided I’d better get back on the wagon, as it were. When the papers go through our HR department, I’ll be getting my $105 worth of Commuter Checks in exchange for my $55 pre-tax contribution. Not a bad deal.
But it could be a lot better, at no expense to the government, as I was reminded today when I perused a list of federal legislation that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is keeping an eye on.
On the list, there’s only one bill that the MTC has decided it likes, and that’s Senate Bill 712, sponsored by Charles Schumer, D-NY, which is a twin to House of Representatives Bill 1475, sponsored by Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
And – you guessed it – the bills are about the Commuter Check tax break.
The bill is aimed at bringing parity to the federal parking tax break, which allows up to $215 per month tax-free, and the public transit fare break, which tops out at $110.
Speaking from a purely selfish point of view, it really bites that you can write off nearly twice as much for parking as you can for riding BART or taking Caltrain.
According to Commuter Check’s website, the parking benefit is supposed to be in conjunction with your transit commute. I’m not sure how that’s enforced, because you could seem to be a legitimate parker on either end of your commute.
The problem that the bills seek to correct is that if we’re trying to cut back on smog, congestion, energy consumption and support for oil billionaires who secretly bankroll jihadis bent on our destruction, we might want to subsidize transit as well as we do parking and driving.
It slices a tiny bit — $15 – from the parking benefit cap to pay for nearly doubling the transit benefit to $200. What’s startling is that that math actually SAVES the government money, according to the legislation’s backers.
Even $200 is modest when you consider that someone riding from the far reaches of BARTland to San Francisco could be shelling out half again as much each month. If I ever decide to go back to a monthly pass, I’d be paying over $300 for my Capitol Corridor train ticket and maybe $10 for bicycle maintenance. If I wanted to park near (there’s no space at the station after 6:20 a.m., but that’s another post) the Amtrak station, it’d cost me a paltry $66 a month, but I’d rather save my money.
If you’re one of those smug government or multinational workers with a full-ride transit benefit, don’t think this doesn’t apply to you. Even if Oracle or my university fees-paying freshman is paying for your BART or Caltrain ticket, you still have to pay taxes on that benefit above $110.
This modest proposal to correct this difference has beenintroduced in Congress four times since the transit/parking break debuted inthe early 1990s, and every session it has been snuffed byRepublicans, most notably by former Ways and Means Chairman William Thomas, now a retired Bakersfield Republican, according to the Association for Commuter Transportation, which has championed the legislation all along.
But we have new leadership in Washington, as you may have heard. When I checked online, it appeared that the legislation had gone nowhere.
I wondered, is it because Congress has its own subway (see photo)?
But when I called the association’s number, I got a call back from Tom Bulger, who lobbies in D.C. for our very own MTC.
“We’re trying to get this provision into the energy bill,” he told me, but so far, that effort is still “fluid” in both houses.
I’m not a Capitol Hill correspondent, but it seems like “fluid” means drowning in a vat of double-talk.
“Everybody has a lot of reasons” for not upping the ante for saving energy and alleviating congestion. “One is the preponderance of Americans get free parking. Most Americans drive.”
Even so, the Bay Area has shown that even if people don’t support transit with their bodies on buses, BART and ferries, they back it with their minds and their wallets. The majority of voters recognize the need to support transit and Bulger said some of them have sent letters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to remind her.
I, too, contacted the speaker’s office to find out if she knew about the House bill (She’s very busy, I know), if she supported it, and, if so, if she intended to bring her considerable organizational skills to bear on it.
No more than an hour had passed after I called them today and I got a call back and a promise to check on this over the next day or so. I’ll post an update when and if I get a response.
I am supposed to be impartial about this, so let me promote that illusion by noting that there are a lot of understandable reasons why people – even the right, er, left-thinking people of the Bay Area – would oppose this.
One, it’s unfair to drivers, who are tolled and taxed already and no one really loves them.
Two, giving bigger tax breaks to long-distance commuters of any kind helps support suburban sprawl development. Go forth, commute no more than 10 miles.
On the latter point, I say sprawl happens. You’re not going to stop it by limiting Commuter Checks. You’re just going to make sure more suburbanites drive.
As for the unrepentant drivers, you’re on your own.
Photo from www.nycsubway.org.