RR commuters socked by higher fares, lower tax benefits
Published 12:41 pm, Wednesday, January 1, 2014
After a year of lengthy commutes caused by Metro-North Railroad's backlog of track work, Peter Garneau, a Springdale commuter said the one-two punch of increased fares and a decrease in tax benefits is difficult to take.
Since Metro-North began a stepped up campaign of track and tie replacement on the New Haven Line in the wake of a derailment in Bridgeport that injured 76 people in May, Garneau's commute to New York has been 15 to 20 minutes longer on an average day.
"It's driving me crazy," said Garneau, a commuter since 2005. "My thing is, now we're going to have to pay all this extra money for a service that is basically the worst it's ever been."
After a rough year that included the derailment, the death of a veteran Metro-North foreman, and 13 days of severely hampered service in September because of a power outage, weary Connecticut commuters will face a 5 percent fare increase as of Jan. 1 along with an automatic cut from $245 to $130 in the amount of pre-tax dollars commuters can deduct monthly on rail and bus tickets and other commuting costs.
Business leaders in Fairfield County and lawmakers are concerned about the dual economic impact of the measures on use of rail and other mass transit following the recent service crises, and in the longer term, Connecticut's ability to keep the New Haven Line in good repair, improve trip times, and compete economically with New York.
"The fare increase combined with the commuter tax benefit expiring is really a double hit and it disastrously discourages train commuting and ridership and generally at a time when we need to bolster it," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Joseph McGee, vice president for the Business Council of Fairfield County said that the reduced tax credit and the increased fare at the same time undermines long-term efforts to spur mass-transit use and throws a glaring light on Connecticut's transportation shortcomings.
A failure to improve rail service could tarnish Fairfield County's appeal for companies looking to establish headquarters in southern Connecticut and lessen the premium a price that commercial and residential space near rail stations commands, McGee said.
"The loss of the tax credit is really unfortunate because that was put in place in order to encourage mass-transit use but also to equalize somewhat the federal benefit that goes into automobiles through the investment in the highway system," McGee said. "The most expensive property is around the train station in Stamford which reflects the desirability of being near rail, so everything we can do to make the rail system better to provide a safer and better ride is crucial."
The limit on the number of pre-tax dollars that could be set aside for mass transit riders was $120 until 2009, when it was boosted to $230 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. A higher level of benefit has been preserved by yearly congressional action since 2010 but now Congress is considering legislation to make the benefit permanent.
The 5 percent fare increase is comprised of the final of three consecutive 4 percent fare hikes enacted in 2011 and 1 percent fare increases between 2012 and 2017 meant to pay for the state's new fleet of 425 M8 railcars.
Both Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., are backing legislation to try to permanently extend the commuter tax-free benefits.
Himes is co-sponsoring the Commuter Parity Act, which would permanently amend the federal tax code to allow a monthly exemption of up to $220 for any transit pass, $220 for parking, and the same amount for those who drive to work.
"The tax-free benefit for commuters is a perfect example of how targeted and effective federal policy can provide employers with an opportunity to help their employees save money on their commute while saving employers money that can be reinvested into their businesses to create new jobs," Himes said. "Congress should not promote a tax policy that penalizes businesses that do the right thing by offering their employees incentives to utilize a variety of transportation options, which is why I have co-sponsored legislation that will ensure permanent parity for drivers and public transportation commuters."
Blumenthal said he is planning to co-sponsor a bill in early 2014 with U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to extend the commuter tax benefit along with a series of other expiring tax breaks.
Blumenthal said in the long term Congress needs to approve funding to replace century-old bridges and other New Haven Line equipment to ensure safe and reliable service and increased capacity that could help unclog Connecticut's congested highways. The Connecticut Department of Transportation has estimated the New Haven Line needs more than $3 billion in investment in the next decade to simply maintain it in a "state of good repair."
"One of the attractions of traveling by train is not only convenience but increased efficiency and rapidness which makes high-speed rail whether between New Haven and New York or anywhere else attractive to riders, but also to business," Blumenthal said. "Safe and reliable railroads add to quality of life and that is a big plus in retaining and reaching out to new business for the state. Conversely areas that lack safe and reliable rail transport are going to be at a disadvantage."
Jim Cameron, the former longtime chairman of Connecticut's Commuter Rail Council, said the increase would place fares from Rowayton or Stamford to Grand Central Station above $300 for the first time, and more than $450 for New Haven-to-Grand Central customers.
The cumulative effect of Metro-North's mishaps, combined with increased costs, has made commuters restless, Cameron said. "With all the stuff we've seen in the last six months from the derailment to the track foreman and other problems, it just goes from bad to worse," Cameron said. "I can understand the commuter's confusion and frustration when the quality is going down and the fares are going up."
"I don't know if they understand the level of frustration with the problems riders have had this year," Foss said. "Nobody wants to pay more money for service, especially the way it has been for the last six months."