Statement of the Mark Epstein, Chair of the
Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council on the Need
to Enact the Commuter Benefits Equity Act (H.R. 2412/S. 1034)
December 9, 2011
LIRR riders have had a rough time lately. In the last two years we’ve had weather events, train breakdowns, system failures and other malfunctions that have led to high levels of rider frustration. We’ve had service cuts that make it impossible to reach some stations on weekends or in late night hours and have made travel less convenient, more crowded, and less bearable generally. The length of time that our tickets are valid now may be as short as two weeks, and if we need to request a refund, we’re charged a $10 fee. On top of all this, last year we had fare increases designed to generate 7.5 percent more revenue. Of course, the actual increases were higher than that to make up for those who stopped riding the LIRR because of higher fares.
But one positive change in our commuting lives was that, starting in 2010, the portion of our monthly commuting costs that could be paid for with pre-tax dollars or provided as a fringe benefit was increased from $120 to $230, equal to the limit allowed for pre-tax parking benefits. Now for many LIRR riders, even this increased amount doesn’t cover their commuting costs, but it definitely makes a positive difference in their net income. A larger problem is that this increase wasn’t made permanent, but was only initially provided only until the end of 2010. In December 2010, the higher limit was extended for another year, but not before some employers had to return to the $120 per month limit for one or two months because their payroll systems could not be adjusted in time. Due to inflation, the increased limit would rise to $240 in 2012; without action, the limit will drop to $125.
Permanently increasing these pre-tax transit benefit limits is a win for employers, workers, and the economy. No one is getting a handout here; riders are using their own wages to pay for their commutes and employers are providing commuting benefits as a part of employee compensation. The higher pre-tax limit is making it easier for LIRR riders to go to work to support their families and fuel the economy through wages that they bring back to their communities. Failing to extend these limits imposes an effective tax increase on these workers at a time when the economy is so fragile and so many families are hurting.
We need to enact this legislation as soon as possible. Already we’re hearing that employers are telling their workers that their pre-tax transit benefit will drop to $125 in January. The Commuter Council has previously written to the members of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees urging them to promptly send this legislation to the floor for action, and we stand ready to make the case for preserving this lifeline to long suffering commuters. We thank Representative Israel for his leadership in raising awareness of the importance that Congress take action now to provide commuters with this needed relief.