A Changing Commute


011714_changing_commuteIt pays to drive. At least it pays more than taking public transit.

With the start of 2014 came the expiration of the credit allowing public transit commuters to claim up to $245 a month as tax exempt. While public transportation users were watching their maximum credit fall to just $130 per month, the credit for those who drive to work rose an additional $5, to a maximum $250 exemption for parking each month.

The credit for drivers is a permanent part of the tax code, but the benefit for public transit commuters is renewed on a year-to-year basis.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Suzanne Cowperthwaite, who has been commuting to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital on the Baltimore Metro Subway since August.

Cowperthwaite said she enjoys the Metro commute more than driving a personal car into the city every day. “It’s just much more convenient,” she said, adding that she spends the 30-minute trip reading — something out of the question for commuters who choose to drive.

Frustration is widespread among many public transit advocacy groups, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based community advocacy organization.

“It’s an extremely misguided budgetary and policy decision by Congress,” said Schwartz, adding that the credit for those who drive to work only adds insult to injury. “The obvious result is that you will end up with a lot more driving and traffic and pollution.”

In addition to the potential environmental costs of providing more incentive for commuters to drive rather than ride mass transit to work, Schwartz also said allowing the credit to expire sends a negative message to the people and urban centers that rely on mass transit.

“It certainly sends the message that [those who commute via public transportation] are not considered equal to those who drive to work,” he said. “It may reflect a misunderstanding of the needs of the metropolitan and urban areas of the country by many members of Congress.”

In the D.C.-Baltimore area, where a weekday average of more than 1.5 million people ride mass transit, buses cover more than 400 routes, and trains cover another 10, in addition to Amtrak lines that extend into other regions of the country.

“The two regions couldn’t function without their robust transit systems,” said Schwartz. “Having the alternative of transit is what keeps this economic region viable and competitive, so it is particularly harmful to the economic competitiveness of this unified region.”

For commuters in the D.C.-Baltimore area, monthly passes can cost anywhere from $64 (Baltimore Metro Subway, Light Rail and local buses) to $250 (MARC pass from Aberdeen to Washington).

“Commuters who use public transportation, and especially those with the longer commutes by rail, bus or van pools, may see their annual commuting cost increase to $1,380 a year based on a bias in the tax code that eliminates the parity between public transportation and auto users,” said American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy in a statement released by the organization.

Monsey Trails operates buses in the New York City area and specializes in commuter bus services that transport passengers to and from New York City, Rockland County and Brooklyn for work.

“We’re not concerned about it,” said Monsey Trails’ David Stern of the expiration of the tax credit.

Stern said that the high cost of tolls around the New York area keeps public transit viable: “People need to get to work. They will take public transit.”

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