Thousands of federal workers ride Metro for free 

Some 120,000 federal workers in the Washington region receive up to $230 a month for transit, which amounts to taxpayer-funded free rides or at least a hefty bite out of even the most expensive trips.

Transit perk numbs effect of proposed fare increases

Tens of thousands of federal workers ride Metro for free and wouldn't feel the pain of proposed fare increases that could raise one-way subway fares to as much as $5.95.

Some 120,000 federal workers in the Washington region receive up to $230 a month for transit, which amounts to taxpayer-funded free rides or at least a hefty bite out of even the most expensive trips.

 

Government transit benefits

The federal government and various local jurisdictions provide their employees with transit benefits to be used on any public transit, including Metro, local buses, and commuter trains such as MARC and Virginia Railway Express:

»  Federal workers: About 120,000 employees from 80 federal agencies out of 289,000 civilian federal workers in the region receive a full transit benefit of up to $230 per month, according to the Department of Transportation and Office of Personnel Management.

»  Arlington County: About 350 to 375 county employees use a county transit subsidy to get 80 percent of their transit expenses paid, up to $162.50 per month.

»  Fairfax County: Nearly 200 county employees receive up $120 per month for transit rides.

»  Montgomery County: County workers can receive $35 per month to apply to transit trips, plus they can ride for free on the county's Ride On buses.

»  Prince George's County: County employees can ride the county's TheBus for free.

»  District of Columbia: City workers do not receive any transit benefits except for pre-tax payroll deductions.

The transit benefit program boosts transit agencies across the country but particularly elevates Metro, since federal workers make up an estimated 40 percent of the 255,000 Metro trips taken during the average morning rush.

 

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff has said Metro receives about twice the federal aid of other transit systems because of the fare subsidy program.

The employee benefit for federal workers locally could total as much $331 million a year.

Private-sector employees also can get a break on their public transportation fares through perks given by their employers or through pre-tax withdrawals from their paychecks. The employers then receive a discount on the taxes they owe Uncle Sam.

The subsidies make many riders more willing to accept fare increases rather than face service cuts, since they may not have to pay the difference.

But riders who don't get subsidized rides would be pinched by Metro's proposal to close an $189 million budget gap by boosting fares by as much as 28 percent. The potential bill for those who travel at the busiest times on the longest subway routes and park at a Metro lot: $17.80 a day.

"It's going to be a problem for somebody," said Ben Ross, with the Transit First coalition of riders, unions and environmental groups that favors fare increases over service cuts. "There's nothing you do that's not going to be a problem for someone."

Metro is looking at charging a "peak of the peak" surcharge of up to 50 cents during the busiest 90 minutes of the morning commute, which would hit many federal workers who travel then. The thinking is that workers paying themselves could adjust their timing. Riders can sound off on the proposals in public hearings that started Monday.

Metro is looking at charging a "peak of the peak" surcharge of up to 50 cents during the busiest 90 minutes of the morning commute, which would hit many federal workers who travel then. The thinking is that workers paying themselves could adjust their timing. Riders can sound off on the proposals in public hearings that started Monday.

The federal subsidy has "certainly helped to take the sting out of the customers' anger about fare increases," said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the Alexandria-based National Taxpayers Union that advocates for lower taxes and smaller government.

The origin of the transit subsidy stems from a long-standing regional problem: parking. In 1941, parking was such an issue that the federal government staggered its work hours, according to a current National Building Museum exhibit.

For years, federal employees received free and subsidized parking. Taking away the perk hasn't been a viable option: When President Carter tried it in 1979, federal employees protested and started a boycott of U.S. savings bonds.

Transit benefits were added as Metrorail expanded. "The logic was: let's level the playing field with parking," said Ronald Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Paying for transit was intended to counter the costs of building new parking garages and roads to get federal employees to work.

"We're trying to get people out on transit systems and off the roads to reduce congestion and improve air quality," Kirby said.

Sepp, too, supports the ideals behind the program, which eases the commutes of non-subsidized drivers. But he said the system's cost may be bigger than the benefit.

"The program itself needs to be right-sized to its economic benefits rather than giving employees another nicety," he said.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

 

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Kytja Weir

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