Mass Transit Advocates Seek Tax Break Parity

Unless Congress takes action in the lame-duck session, commuters who use mass transit and van pools will continue to get a smaller tax break than the one available to drivers who get a tax break for employer-provided parking.

Current law allows a $130 a month mass transit tax break (an exclusion from taxable income) compared to $250 a month for car commuters.

Mass transit and van pool advocates are urging Congress to restore tax break parity, which the tax code provided from 2009 until last year.

Tom Downs, chairman of the Washington D.C. Metro system, told a Capitol Hill press conference that “our ridership has stagnated since this change in benefits took effect…. We think that in part this is because of this change in benefits. Providing a $1,500 a year incentive to drive your car over taking transit, you’re probably going to have an impact on mode choice.”

The proposal bill offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and mass transit advocates would reduce the tax break for those who commute by car and increase it for those who choose mass transit or van pools, making the tax break $235 a month for all.

This, Blumenauer argued, shouldn’t raise an outcry from drivers because “frankly we’re in a situation where the auto user actually is seeing dramatic reductions in their costs because gas prices have dropped 73 cents since their peak earlier his year. But transit is taking a hit.”

Blumenauer refuted the notion that since Republicans tend to represent non-urban districts where people drive long distances and not urban areas, his proposal would a tough sell for most House GOP members.

“If you look at the transit systems around the country, you’ll find that there a lots of people in red states that take buses and light rail,” the Oregon Democrat said. “Dallas has the largest light rail system by miles in the United States. The notion that somehow this is red state/blue state and that there are winners and losers I just categorically reject.”

He also mentioned Republicans who might be at risk in the 2016 election who would have reason to want the parity proposal to be included in a tax breaks package in the lame duck session.

“Let me just pick a random state: Pennsylvania, that I think has a Republican senator who’s up for re-election” in 2016, he said, alluding to Sen. Pat Toomey. “This makes a difference to hundreds of thousands of people in Pennsylvania. There’s a Republican senator up for re-election in Illinois [Sen. Mark Kirk] and there are hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois who benefit from this.”