A tax benefit for people who take public transportation is set to shrink Wednesday, a casualty of congressional inaction and a move that some transportation advocates fear will encourage driving instead of mass transit.
The credit allowed transit commuters to set aside wages in an account used exclusively for paying public transportation costs pre-tax. In 2013, the monthly benefit was $245.
But now, because Congress did not renew a package of federal subsidies, the benefit for public transportation users will drop to $130 per month. At the same time, a similar credit allowed motorists for parking will increase to $250 per month. In Massachusetts, that change will primarily affect people who ride longer distances on the commuter rail.
“It just feels like state and federal forces don’t want me to take public transit anymore,” said Eric Papetti, 32, who rides the commuter rail every day from Somerville to Lowell, where he works as transportation coordinator at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
In advance of the expiration of $115 in monthly benefits, he has purchased a surplus of commuter rail passes to use up what’s left in his account balance. He also plans to begin starting his commuter rail journey from a station farther from his house so he will pay less for his ticket.
“This sends a terrible message,” Papetti said. “It indicates that Congress thinks people who don’t commute by car aren’t real, or don’t count. Instead, they heavily subsidize the most wasteful and inefficient transportation known to man.”
The American Public Transportation Association, an organization that promotes the use of mass transit, estimated that those who take longer commutes by rail, bus, or ferry could see their annual commuting costs increase by as much as $1,380 per year.
Mantill Williams, the group’s spokesman, explained that the federal parking benefits are a permanent fixture in the tax code and automatically continue each year, increasing to match inflation. In contrast, the benefits for those who use trains or buses are approved on a year-to-year basis. If Congress does not vote to extend the benefit, it is automatically cut nearly in half.
In recent years, renewing the transit tax benefit has been an eleventh-hour undertaking for congressional leaders, Williams said. They allowed the benefit to elapse at the beginning of 2012 and approved a renewal in March of that year. In 2013, Congress voted on Jan. 1 to extend the subsidy.
“The federal tax code has a bias against people taking public transportation,” Williams said. “That should be eliminated.”
There’s hope for the coming months: Congress may pass a “tax extender bill,” a package that restores a host of small-scale tax benefits that expire each year, though it’s unclear whether the extension would operate retroactively. But Williams and other public transportation advocates are also hoping for a more permanent fix: legislation that would make the public transportation tax break permanent and creating parity with its driving equivalent.
Some legislators, including Representative James P. McGovern of Worcester, have sought to do exactly that, submitting bills that would equalize transit and parking benefits, and would also offer a $35-per-month tax benefit for commuting bicycle expenses or bike-share membership.
“The transit benefit is one small, but significant, piece to making commuting more affordable for millions of Americans,” McGovern said in a statement in September.
But Michael Mershon, a spokesman for McGovern, said the legislation has stalled. It remains unclear, Mershon said, whether leadership in the House of Representatives will include the transit tax break in the “extender bill,” or whether legislators will wait to incorporate the benefit into a larger tax debate that may occur later this year.
“Frankly it has always been a struggle to try and get this through the House with current leadership,” Mershon said. “This is not something they place a high priority on.”
Stephanie Pollack, associate director at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said lawmakers’ lack of urgency to make the commuter tax urgent may be attributed to a perception that it affects only wealthier commuters.
“It makes Congress just think, well, it doesn’t affect that many people, or it affects people on commuter rail or ferry boats, and they’re not the poorest of the poor, so it’s OK,” Pollack said.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo suggested that the agency was not particularly worried about the decreasing tax benefit, saying that the primary factor affecting commuter rail ridership is reliability and quality of service. And, by some accounts, the commuter rail is still cheaper than driving: The American Public Transportation Association released a study in December that said Massachusetts families can save as much as $1,083 per month by using the MBTA and down-sizing from two cars to one.
But Pollack worried that the disappearance of this federal tax benefit would be an additional disincentive for people to ride the commuter rail, which has seen declining ridership in recent years.
“It’s the wrong sign to be sending at a time when traffic congestion is growing and we care about greenhouse gases,” Pollack said. “We should want people to be using transit.”