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Officials: LIRR commuter tax benefit expected to be restored

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train enters

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train enters the Jamaica station in the afternoon hours of the day March 11, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Federal lawmakers expect later this week to restore a tax benefit for commuters that could save Long Island Rail Road customers hundreds of dollars a year in fares.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said Wednesday that a tax extension bill that should be approved Friday includes a proposal to allow transit users to pay their commuting costs next year using $255 a month in pretaxed dollars through employer-offered programs, like WageWorks. About 700,000 commuters in the New York metropolitan area took advantage of the benefit in 2013.

“This is a huge victory for Long Island’s mass transit commuters that can save them hard-earned dollars on their expensive commutes,” Schumer said in a statement. “As the price of commuting continues to climb, this commuter tax break has become increasingly vital for Long Island residents, who already experience a very high cost of living.”

Currently transit users can only set aside $130. The federal government increased that amount substantially in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but it expired in January of last year.

According to Schumer, a person making $60,000 a year will now be able to save $765 annually in commuting costs — an increase of $375.

“If you’re in a high bracket, it could easily be a thousand dollars in your pocket,” said William Henderson, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council.

The plan will also, for the first time, make the transit subsidy permanently equal to that offered to motorists, who are already able to set aside $245 a month for parking costs. King called it “a good day for Long Island.”

“It’s a real step forward, especially for people living in the suburbs. It gives them parity from every perspective,” King said. “There was really no reason at all why it shouldn’t have happened before.”

The increased tax break is expected to particularly benefit LIRR commuters, who pay, on average, $345 a month for their monthly railroad pass. That amount is expected to go up by 4 percent in 2017.

“Anything that the federal government can do to either maintain or improve upon the subsidies that we get either directly or our customers get is great,” Prendergast said.

Although the MTA Board on Wednesday approved a financial plan that assumes a 2017 fare increase, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas Prendergast said the agency is “not locked in” to the size of the hike. The MTA will consider its overall fare policy late next year, including proposals to offer reduced LIRR fares for Southeast Queens residents and to make the Q70 bus line a free shuttle to and from La Guardia Airport, Prendergast said.

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