Published: January 12, 2012 9:51 PM
By ALFONSO A. CASTILLO
Lawmakers at the state and federal levels say they are fighting to restore a recently expired tax break for commuters that previously saved transit users on Long Island hundreds of dollars a year.
State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) earlier this month introduced a bill to allow commuters in the state to deduct up to $240 in transit costs from their state taxes -- a move meant to ease the hurt caused when a federal tax benefit for commuters expired Dec. 31.
"The residents of Long Island rely heavily on the Long Island Rail Road," Fuschillo said. "They should not be penalized because Congress can't get their act together."
The federal benefit allows transit riders to set aside a portion of their salary, pretax, to cover commuting costs. The benefit, which is provided by employers through programs such as TransitChek, had allowed enrollees to deduct up to $230 a month in commuting costs. But in January, that amount dropped to $125 -- the level it was at for years before being increased in 2009.
The program, which Congress must renew annually, is open to commuters on the LIRR, Metro-North Railroad, city subways and buses, and express buses.
Steven Higashide, federal advocate for the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said that for someone earning $50,000 a year and paying $230 a month in commuting costs, the reduced benefit is the equivalent of a $400 fare hike this year.
Few Long Island commuters pay less than $230 a month to get to and from work. An unlimited monthly MetroCard costs $104 a month. A monthly ticket from Great Neck to Penn Station costs $223.
Further angering transit advocates, the federal tax benefit on parking for commuters who drive was recently increased from $230 to $240 a year.
"That's exactly backwards of what the federal tax code should be doing," said Higashide. "It makes a lot of sense to incentivize mass transit. It reduces traffic congestion. It improves air quality and public health. Restoring this benefit makes both environmental and economic sense."
Kathleen McMinn, spokeswoman for TransitCenter, the Manhattan-based company that administers TransitChek, said that 2.7 million commuters in the New York metropolitan area use the benefit, which is provided by 500,000 employers.
Fuschillo said he is "confident" that his bill will pass the state Legislature and give commuters some needed relief.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he still is working to have the full federal commuter tax benefit restored when Congress considers an extension of the federal payroll tax next month.
"The last thing we should be doing in this economy is making it more expensive for Long Island commuters to get to work," Schumer said. "It's simply not fair to squeeze Long Islanders with a more expensive commute."