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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Pols Must Back Mass Transit To Beat Traffic

Federal, state and city lawmakers have the power to reduce the region’s traffic congestion while also promoting mass transit. If the past is prologue, they will decline to use it.

Congress, for instance, has until the end of this month to extend a law allowing mass transit users (e.g., bus, subway, commuter rail) to use up to $245 in pre-tax dollars toward their monthly commute. The federal government already allows $245 in pre-tax dollars to be used by drivers each month for their parking expenses, a figure which will increase to $250 on Jan. 1, 2014. The monthly pre-tax limit for transit users will fall to $130 on New Year’s Day should Congress fail to act on this matter by year-end 2013, something which happened in late 2011. D.C.’s inaction left transit users at a competitive disadvantage to drivers in 2012.

Recognizing how many New Yorkers spend hundreds of dollars monthly on mass transit, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has sponsored a bill (S. 1116) to have the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) treat drivers and transit users alike. Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island) has done the same in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Grimm’s House Resolution 2288 has the support of Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola).

Given that the least expensive monthly LIRR ticket into New York City, from Nassau County, is $242, LIRR commuters who reside in Nassau and have employers who offer pre-tax payroll deduction products such as TransitChek by WageWorks stand to spend significantly more out-of-pocket for their commute next year than they did in 2013.   

It is easy to understand why majorities in neither the U.S. Senate nor the U.S. House care about the plight of taxpayers who rely on mass transit. The overwhelming majority of Americans drive to work, and Congress will always have their back. If the public policy concern is bolstering the federal government’s revenues, Congress should, in 2014, reduce to $130 from $250 the pre-tax dollars a driver can use each month for parking. Full disclosure: I am a TransitChek customer.

Meanwhile, New York State’s Legislature is reconvening in January 2014, and a group calling itself Move NY will be approaching lawmakers about creating new revenue streams to boost the coffers of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) capital program and fund road repair projects, The New York Times reported. To accomplish these goals, Move NY will advocate for two major initiatives, according to various published news accounts.

The first involves placing tolls on the currently toll-free Brooklyn, Ed Koch Queensboro, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. These four East River crossings allow private-passenger and commercial vehicles to enter and exit Manhattan without charge, and almost every city lawmaker besides Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the status quo even though it results in traffic-clogged streets and more carbon emissions. The second Move NY proposal calls for increasing existing city bridge and tunnel tolls in areas with high congestion and access to mass transit, and lowering or eliminating tolls in transit-poor parts of the city. “Move NY has billed the new plan as ‘fair tolling and transportation reinvestment,’ adding that its details would not be made final until after a series of public forums next year [2014],” the Times article explained.

The political obstacles to installing tolls where none now exist, and adjusting toll rates at other crossings, are formidable. The MTA, a state agency, would likely have to assume control of the aforementioned four city-owned East River bridges, requiring the approvals of the state Legislature and the New York City Council. Still, if the region’s traffic congestion is ever going to be eased, Job One is getting cars off the road.

Remember all this when you hear a lawmaker bemoaning how the LIRR’s ridership is dropping, or that the MTA is unable to fund its capital program. Move NY has outlined ways to reverse these trends. Let those who insist on driving into Manhattan pay a high price for the privilege of doing so. These motorists can afford new, or higher, toll fares with the money Congress allows them to save on parking.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: