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Groups urge Congress to restore commuter tax break

Commuters board their westbound train while other passengers

Commuters board their westbound train while other passengers disembark, Tuesday evening at the Mineola LIRR station. (December 17, 2013) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein Danielle Finkelstein

Public transportation advocates are turning up the volume on their calls for U.S. lawmakers to restore a federal tax break that expired this month, driving up commuting costs $1,300 a year for the average Long Island Rail Road user.

More than two dozen transit watchdog groups from the tristate area joined in releasing a statement Wednesday urging Congress to make the Commuter Tax Benefit a top priority as it reconvenes this week. The benefit allows public transportation users to pay the cost of their commutes with as much as $245 in pretax dollars each month through employer-administered programs such as WageWorks.

When the benefit, effective through Dec. 31, expired, the allowed amount of deductible income was rolled back to $130 per month -- the pre-2013 level, plus a small inflation increase. Meanwhile, motorists who commute by car are still allowed to set aside $250 to pay parking costs.

"When riders no longer have the option to use pretax dollars for transit passes, transit systems may face decreased ridership, which often leads to fare hikes and service cuts," the groups, including the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the LIRR Commuter Council, said in their statement. "Restoring and enacting permanent parity for transit riders, and making that parity retroactive to January 1, establishes a balanced and progressive fiscal policy."

In a separate statement, LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said giving bigger tax breaks to drivers "sends exactly the wrong message to people who have made the responsible decision to use public transportation to travel to work."

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) led an effort in Washington, D.C., to extend and increase the full Commuter Tax Benefit as part of a package of tax breaks considered last month, but it was blocked by GOP lawmakers. Schumer said Wednesday he is working on bringing the issue up for a vote again in the Senate "as soon as humanly possible."

"No one questions that this tax benefit is critical to New York and New York commuters," Schumer said.

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