Transit riders received an unexpected gift from Congress in the new year: Federal benefits to take public transportation will rise to at least $240 per month after dropping in 2012.

The approved legislation averting the "fiscal cliff" includes a provision calling for transit benefits to be equal to parking benefits, which are currently a maximum of $240 a month. The move is a boon for local commuters but also for transit agencies such as Metro, Virginia Railway Express and MARC.

Transit advocates hailed the increase as a long-sought victory in putting transit on par with driving. "This is the biggest parity leap we've ever been able to do," said Tom Bulger, a Metro board member who lobbied for the increase in his job as a lobbyist for WageWorks.

The transit benefits had been increased to $230 per month as part of President Obama's stimulus package but expired on Jan. 1, 2012, dropping to $125 per month. Parking benefits, though, remained at a maximum of $240 per month. Federal workers are typically given the transit benefits outright, while private employers can choose to give it as a perk or let employees deduct the amount from their paychecks before taxes.

The new law also makes the change retroactive, meaning riders could be credited for costs not covered in 2012, but the mechanics of how that could work aren't clear. Bulger called it a "logistical nightmare" for private companies such as WageWorks. "We don't know how to make it administratively work," he said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is still reviewing the language of the bill on how the retroactive component would affect federal workers, said agency spokeswoman Lori Irving.

The higher levels could help reverse a slip in ridership at local transit agencies. Metro has largely blamed the reduction in transit benefits for causing a 6.3 percent drop in rail ridership below budget expectations from July through October. Metro has estimated that two out of three rail riders use the benefits during the morning rush.

Agency spokesman Philip Stewart said Wednesday the restored levels will have a "positive effect" on Metro ridership.

VRE saw its ridership drop about 1 percent last year due to the decreased benefits, said spokesman Mark Roeber. But now, he expects the commuter train service that runs from Fredericksburg and Manassas into the District will benefit the most because it has the highest prices locally for its longest-distance riders.

Still, the legislation called for only one year of the higher levels. Transit advocates are already pushing for the new Congress to make the higher limits permanent, according to the American Public Transportation Association.