GRAFTON, Mass. — Speaking at the Grafton MBTA Commuter Rail Station on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern announced his support for the inclusion of commuter transit benefit parity in the transportation authorization bill currently under consideration in Congress. He was joined by representatives from several participating organizations.
Until the beginning of this year, commuters were able to take advantage of a federal tax benefit—provided by their employers—that allowed them to deduct up to $230 of pre-tax income from their paychecks each month to cover the cost of mass transit. But Congress failed to extend this benefit, McGovern explained, and as a result, the benefit cap was reduced to $125 per month.
Randy Johnson, Vice President of Sales and Service at Edenred, a provider of commuter benefit programs, called the reduction "a tax increase on those Americans who already had the longest commutes."
Meanwhile, commuters who drive to work have been unaffected by the change. In fact, a recent cost-of-living adjustment now allows drivers to deduct up to $240 of pre-tax income each month for parking expenses.
This disparity has caused many residents of Central Massachusetts who work in Boston to reconsider how they commute to the city.
Mike Neville, Manager of Finance for Police, Security and Outside Services at Mass General Hospital, said that 10,000 employees—out of a total of 22,000—participate in the transit benefit program. But with their benefits cut, he said, "I know many of our people would opt to drive instead."
McGovern called for the transit benefit to be permanently matched to the one drivers still enjoy, adding that it should also be regularly adjusted for inflation.
"Making parity permanent will promote basic fairness in our transportation policy," he said.
Paul Dean, Vice President of TransitCenter, a group that advocates for public transportation, explained that Grafton residents commuting to Boston every day pay $250 per month for commuter rail passes. If offered the same benefits that drivers receive, he said, those commuters could deduct all but $10 of their monthly costs.
He also pointed out the many positives of encouraging public transportation, arguing that it is better for the environment, reduces our dependence on foreign oil and saves families money.
Still, McGovern said that efforts to fix this disparity have stalled in Congress.
"Nobody seems to be against this idea," he said, "but we can't seem to attach it to a bill that can pass both Houses and reach the President's desk."
He suggested that politics may be partly to blame.
"I think there are some who don't want the President to sign anything into law, because they think it will give him an advantage," McGovern said.
He added, however, that transportation issues have historically been non-partisan, and that both parties should be able to take credit for this benefit.
"It's a very simple detail in our public policy," said John Walkey, a Massachusetts field organizer for Transportation for America. "It keeps all the cars in this parking lot from sitting in the parking lot that would be—that is—the Mass Pike."