Commuters who rely on federal transit benefits to help pay for their daily trips to work likely will have to wait until at least March to get their benefits restored to current levels -- if at all.

The benefits are slated to drop from the current maximum of $230 per month to $125 as of Jan. 1, even as benefits for parking rise to $240.

Transit advocates had been pushing for Congress to extend the higher benefits, but the effort got lost amid the end-of-year scuffle over the payroll tax. Now, advocates have given up for this year.

"We're going to continue to push for it in the new year," said Brian Tynan, director of government relations for the American Public Transportation Association.

Riders rescue man who fell onto tracks
Three riders came to the rescue of a man in a wheelchair who fell onto Metro's tracks Thursday afternoon, according to D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services.
Firefighters were called to the Potomac Avenue Metro station on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill at 2:32 p.m., said spokesman Oscar Mendez. But when they got there, he said, the person in the wheelchair had already been helped. No train was nearby when he fell.
He was transported to a local hospital with head injuries, according to D.C. fire officials.
Metro confirmed that a man in a wheelchair was back on the platform, but Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said she was unable to confirm additional details as transit agency officials were still investigating what happened. - Kytja Weir

But he said Congress has only a few days available in January to deal with any legislation, so it likely wouldn't be picked up until at least February.

Even if approved, it would take human resources employees until at least March to implement it, APTA estimates. The benefit is given to some workers as a direct perk -- including most federal workers in the Washington region -- but also as pre-tax deductions from paychecks.

In addition, local riders will have to shoulder an even bigger share: Both Virginia Railway Express and Metro have proposed raising fares in July.

To be sure, some riders won't notice much difference with the lower benefit levels. Those who take short Metro trips rarely need the full $230 amount each month. But long-haul riders from the outer suburbs, or those who have to transfer to a bus from the rail system, may rack up costs.

Commuters who rely on VRE and MARC commuter trains will especially feel the change, as their tickets can be significantly more expensive. A monthly VRE pass costs as much as $285.50, but jumps to $387.50 for riders who ride Metro once they get to Union Station. MARC monthly passes range from $100 to $350 but can cost as much $453 with an additional Metro pass.

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  • At VRE, about 68 percent of the system's riders use some form of the transit benefits, according to spokesman Mark Roeber. VRE doesn't expect to see a drop in ridership with the lower benefit levels, but Roeber said they expect riders will buy 10- and five-trip tickets instead of monthly passes.

    Metro, though, has estimated that it could lose 2.8 percent of its riders without the higher benefit. MARC spokesman John Wesley said they don't like to speculate.

    Rafael Guroian, who receives the benefit as a pre-tax deduction, said the drop won't change his MARC commuting habits. But Guroian, who is chairman of the service's riders advisory council, said it will dent the pocketbooks of commuter train riders.

    "It will affect the lifestyle of many of our riders," he said. "They're still going to be traveling. They're just going to have to have to begin making cuts in the rest of their lives."