Feds plan to shell out more money to get to work

Friday - 12/16/2011, 5:35am EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Many federal employees are planning to pay more to get to work next month.

Without Congressional action, the public transit benefit that they use to take the subway, bus or vanpool to work will drop on Jan. 1 from $230 per month to $125.

Keith Eichenholz told Federal News Radio that he would spend about $100 more per month for his commute from the Maryland suburbs to the Department of Health and Human Services in downtown Washington.

"It's money out of my pocket," he said as he walked from the Federal Center SW metro station to his office.

The mass-transit benefit is one of several tax provisions set to expire at the end of this month. About 75 lawmakers have written to House and Senate leaders urging them to stick extension language in any spending bill Congress passes. They say it could be done without increasing federal spending.

"It is possible to extend this benefit in a way that carries little to no net cost to the taxpayer," 22 senators wrote to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) Dec. 9.

Colleen Kelly, national president, National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU)

The National Treasury Employees President Colleen Kelley told Federal News Radio that she was encouraged by these letters but feared that, "Considering everything that Congress is wrestling with on all of these other economic issues, this will either be lost in the shuffle, or no one will be there to carry it over the goal line."

NTEU has called on Congress to make the legislation permanent "so that it's not an annual discussion, or threat or fear," she said.

The 2009 stimulus bill raised the public transit benefit to the current level for a year. Last year, lawmakers extended the benefit for a second year just in the nick of time.

Meanwhile, federal employees are trying to figure out what the potential increase could mean for their wallets and daily routines.

About a fifth of feds work outside the office through teleworking arrangements at least occasionally.

"Our managers are pretty good, pretty supportive of that. We're allowed to work from home," Eichenholz said. "I'm not sure if it's going to change at all but we're allowed to do that and I may."

Eichenholz was one of several federal employees who stopped outside the Federal Center SW metro station on their way to work to speak with Federal News Radio. Most of them told us they would not change their habits.

"It won't change my behavior. I'll just have to pay for it," said HHS employee Caroline Taplin.

For her, that means paying $75 more each month for her ride from Rockville, Md., to HHS. While that might not seem like a lot of money on its own, it comes on top of a two-year federal pay freeze.

Still, Taplin said her agency has more immediate concerns.

"We don't have a budget," she said.

If gridlock at the Capitol continues, there could be more of the same on the roads. A federal parking benefit is set to rise to $240 per month in January. Ironically, by not acting, Congress would be favoring solo drivers over commuters who choose greener ways to get to work.

Under those circumstances, Shannon Richardson said her commute from her home near Baltimore to FEMA headquarters would be expensive no matter what and could be the thing that makes her leave federal service.

"I'm looking at working closer to home so that way I don't have to worry about it," she said, adding that she cannot telework in her current role.

The transit benefit affects more than just federal employees. Employers can offer it as a pre-tax benefit to their staff, and save on federal payroll taxes themselves.

More than 2.5 million people nationwide use the mass-transit benefit, according to Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) (AP)

Matthew Magazu offers the benefit to his nine employees at Trilogy Federal, an accounting firm that caters to the government.

He said he spent more than $125 per month on commuting, as did most of his employees.

"I think it costs me about $155 a month to get to and from work," he said. "If you cut that, we're losing money just by going to work."

He said the reduction in benefits could change the way his company does business.

"That means if I have an employee who had to work out in Annapolis, they couldn't afford it," he said.

If Congress delays action until next year, feds may be able to reclaim some of their benefit. But, according to lawmakers, private employers would not.

Magazu summed up the situation in two words: "That sucks."

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