Senate eyes federal commuter tax break

Commuters at the Syosset LIRR train station. The Commuters at the Syosset LIRR train station. The finance committee Thursday approved a tax bill provision to restore the full public transportation benefit and increase it to $240 to match the motorists' tax break. (July 26, 2011) Photo Credit: Chris Ware

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The Senate Finance Committee Thursday passed a bill that would restore an expired federal tax break for commuters and save them hundreds of dollars a year.

From 2009 until January, commuters could set aside as much as $230 a month tax free to cover their public transportation costs. When the law expired, the benefit rolled back to $120 per month. A similar tax break for those who drive to work increased this year from $230 to $240 a month.

Democratic lawmakers sought to restore the full benefit in a transportation bill, but it was not included in the final version passed in June.

The finance committee Thursday approved a tax bill provision proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to restore the full public transportation benefit and increase it to $240 to match the motorists' tax break. Restoring the commuter tax benefit would cost $271 million, according to Schumer's office.

The benefit, which is administered through programs like TransitChek, would be retroactive to January. A Schumer spokesman said the provision had bipartisan support in the committee and will go before the full Senate next month.

"I have no intention of letting this vital tax benefit for middle-class families go gently into the night," Schumer said in a statement. "It makes absolutely no sense to provide those who drive to work with a tax break and make commuters who use mass transit pay more."

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Transit advocates had feared restoration was a lost cause after it was not included in the transportation bill.

"This is a wrong which must be righted," Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said, noting its importance to "millions of working men and women who need to make every commuting dollar count."

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