News & Politics

Happy New Year, Federal Employees. The Commute Just Became More Expensive.

Because Congress did not extend a transit subsidy, federal government employees who use Metro will pay more to get to work in 2014.

Photograph by Flickr user Andrew Bossi.

Getting to and from work just became more expensive for federal employees who rely on Metro. Thanks to Congress’s dawdling, a federal transit subsidy that hundreds of thousands of local workers depend on just dropped from $245 per month to a meager $130, putting it back where it was before 2009.

Moreover, many private-sector employees who take Metro on a daily basis will also start paying a bit more for their commute because Congress also failed to continue a program that allows workers to set aside pre-tax dollars for public transit. 

There were at least three bills introduced last year to extend the higher transit benefits, along with lobbying from federal workers’ unions and Metro, but those efforts failed, most recently on December 20 when Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, objected to a bill that would have continued the $245 subsidy. Monthly transit benefits were more than $100 below parking benefits until the 2009 stimulus act, which brought them to parity, but the law also required Congress to re-authorize the measure each year. 

While public-transit users are getting stiffed, drivers are actually getting a boost in their monthly parking benefits to $250. And transit officials are worried that the new disparity could encourage more people to get on Washington’s famously clogged highways rather than trains and buses.

“This potentially has a devastating effect on ridership,” Tom Downs, the chairman of Metro’s board of directors, said at a meeting last year. Metro estimates about 700,000 people get to work by rail every weekday, and about 40 percent of rush-hour riders are federal workers receiving transit subsidies. 

The higher transit subsidy actually lapsed in 2012, but was applied retroactively the following year. Metro spokeswoman Caroline Laurin says the transit agency is hoping Congress will restore parity between transit and driving benefits when it gets back in session, but in the mean time, the drop in transit subsidies is forcing Metro to be more careful with its finances. “As for next year’s budget, this is something that we hoped would not happen, but our budget office has planned for the possibility,” Laurin says.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.