Congressional spending bill to boost transit tax benefit

WASHINGTON — Federal workers and other commuters across the region, and across the country, could find it pays to take the train or bus to work in the new year, thanks to a boost in tax benefits for transit riders that Metro’s leaders hope will draw more passengers back to the rail system.

The proposal included in the spending bill working its way through Congress would give equal tax benefits to those who choose to use pretax dollars for transit and to those who use it for parking.

Under the bill, the benefit would be $255 per month in 2016. The transit benefit is currently capped at $130 per month, compared to $250 for parking. The parking and transit benefits had been set at the same level as part of the 2009 stimulus law, but that parity has expired.

Metro has blamed the disparity in the transit benefit for some of the recent dropoff in ridership as many federal agencies pay the benefit directly.

“Our customers, especially those in federal employment and those covered by the recent District of Columbia mandate will see their monthly transit benefit restored, and restored permanently,” Metro Board Chairman Mort Downey says.

Metro and other regional leaders had been lobbying for the increase in the tax benefit, which is also used by VRE, MARC and commuter bus riders.

“We finally got it, and we will all benefit from it, and hopefully use this as an opportunity to bring back some of our riders and continue to provide good service,” Downey says.

The omnibus spending bill also includes the full $150 million for Metro safety improvements that the federal government has promised to contribute annually.

“That is just so important to us going forward, on both fronts,” Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Thursday.

“It has had an impact on our ridership, and I think it offers a great customer initiative,” he says.

In another effort to draw more riders, the Metro Board Thursday approved a trial program for new, cheaper monthly passes that might appear more reasonable to more riders.

The three- to six-month test period is expected to start in the first half of 2016, with a review of the program expected by the fall.

The passes are expected to cost the same as about 18 days of round-trip commutes, which would be a savings worth roughly two days of Metro rides for commuters who use the system each weekday.

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