A long-awaited tax break for transit users that will take some of the sting out of the MTA's upcoming fare hikes was included in the congressional "fiscal cliff" resolution, which was approved this week and signed by President Barack Obama Wednesday.
The Commuter Mass Transit benefit allows public transportation users to pay for the cost of their commutes with as much as $240 of pretax dollars each month through programs like TransitChek or WageWorks.
The current commuter tax break is limited to $125 per month -- the amount that's been in place since the original benefit expired in January 2011 -- while drivers have been able to write off $240 a month for parking fees.
Giving commuters an incentive to drive instead of taking public transportation "was completely backwards," said Steven Hagashide, senior planner for the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Restoring the full benefit to transit riders represents "a very significant pocketbook relief for hundreds of thousands . . . in the region."
The restored benefit will be retroactive to January 2011, although it has not been determined how transit users will be able to claim back benefits. More than a half-million people in the New York City area take advantage of the benefit, which is offered by about 15,000 employers, according to TransitCenter, the company that administers TransitChek.
"In a package that has some major flaws, the extension of the transit benefit -- used by New Yorkers more than anyone else in the country -- is a real victory that keeps more money in commuters' pockets and gives them some much-needed relief as they work to make ends meet," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who pushed for the restored benefit to be included.
The restoration of the benefit could provide hundreds of dollars in relief for Metropolitan Transportation Authority customers who face a fare increase in March. Some Long Island Rail Road customers will pay an additional $444 a year in commuting costs.
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, called the restoration of the benefit, which expires at the end of the year, an "important first step" toward permanent parity between transit users and motorists.
"Congress has recognized that transit commuters deserve treatment equal to those who drive to work," Epstein said.