Analysis, discussion and opinions by members of Newsday's editorial board.

Dolman: 'Fiscal cliff' bonus -- a mass-transit tax benefit

A train leaves the Long Island Rail Road

A train leaves the Long Island Rail Road station in Syosset. (Credit: Chris Ware)

Chalk up a victory for mass transit riders.

A few years ago, red-state congressional Republicans sliced a hefty chunk out of the monthly mass-transit tax benefit for commuters on the Long Island Rail Road and other forms of public transportation. But they retained a significantly higher benefit for commuters who drive to work and rack up monthly parking fees.

Not only was the move unfair. In public-policy terms it was a head-scratcher. It’s hard to find a large city anywhere in the country that isn’t hopelessly afflicted with infuriating rush-hour traffic. Why incentivize that? The answer is that red states have lots of drivers but not many daily commuters on public transportation. Blue states — especially in the Northeast — have large concentrations public transit commuters.

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So Congress went with the drivers and transit riders took the whack. Since January 2011, public transportation users were allowed to set aside up to $125 a month from their paychecks before taxes for commuting costs, while drivers who pay to park were able to deduct $240 a month.

Now, happily, relief has arrived. A group led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) inserted a measure into last week’s “fiscal cliff” deal that brings the monthly tax benefit to $240 for those of us who use, say, the Long Island or Metro-North railroads or the New York City subways.

The fix is retroactive for 2012, and will last through 2013. Proponents say the higher benefit represents an annual tax cut of more than $400 for an individual who makes $50,000 a year and spends at least $240 a month on transit.

Pork, you say? No, no, no, it’s simple fairness — and a reasonable way to get more people out of their cars and onto public transportation. In a country that’s using up fossil fuel and roadway space at an alarming clip, that’s a pretty smart national investment.

Tags: long island rail road , fiscal cliff , commuter tax , mass transit , mta , subway , taxes

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