Congress

My commute is a political football

20141006_181448I received this note in my inbox from my benefits provider this morning:

The Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014, signed into law on December 19, 2014, retroactively increased the tax-free mass transit benefit from $130 to $250 for the 2014 calendar year.

But, I feel a little used.  This happens each year.  The benefit is treated as a bargaining chip inside the mess that is our Congress.  It is used as a way for elected officials to say, “Hey, look what we did for you.  We got you $250 of tax-free transit.”  Or, in non-transit states, “we didn’t raise your taxes because we found some money in a place you wouldn’t look anyway.  Don’t forget to vote in November.”

The sad part is this is just for 2014.  In 2015, now, we go back to $130.

Why it is bounces back and forth makes very little sense seeing it doesn’t really cost a whole lot.

From the House Ways and Means Committee,

According to JCT , this provision would reduce revenues by $10 million over 2015-2024.

$10 million over 10 years.  That’s doesn’t sound like a lot of money. But, it is Congress, why should it make sense.

Advertisements

The great crumbling

image

Croton-Harmon Station

Two days and two breakdowns on the Hudson Line: Monday’s 8:28a from Cold Spring was canceled because the train broke down at New Hamburg. Tuesday’s 6:48a from Cold Spring broke down in Peekskill. It seemed fitting that yesterday the APTA posted this 60 Minutes report from November outlining our country’s failing infrastructure.

I wish Tex Williams was on the radio

In the summer of 1947, Tex Williams hit it big with a little ditty called “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).” In his silky- smooth talking blues style, he complained for three minutes about how the need to light up was delaying a poker win as well as his “pettin’ party” with some “dame”.

You dog, Tex, with your cigarettes, gambling and “pettin’ party”.

The song spent six weeks at #1 on the billboard charts in ’47.  Oh, the good old days.

The news of Metro-North’s 4% fare hike – that will likely push my monthly north of $400 – made me long for the good old days when Tex ruled the airwaves.

My Reasons:

The New York Central’s West Shore passenger service (scroll all the way to the bottom) was still around and the monthly from nearby Newburgh to New York was all of $19.10.  That’s a little more than $200 in 2014 money.  $200!

 

 

Now there were only a handful of rush hour trains, the trip took close to 2 hours because of the required transfer to a Manhattan-bound ferry, but hey, $19.10 is $19.10.  And the train stopped in your town.  Yay!

But, the end was near.   Trains to Newburgh ended in 1958.   Years following, politicians and civic leaders yelled and screamed about how passenger service should be restored on the West Shore.  It never happened.  Eastern Orange County commuter service ended up in, of all places, Salisbury Mills and Campbell Hall, along a former Erie Railroad freight bypass.  Makes sense seeing why would we run the trains where people live?

I think I need a cigarette.

Mailing it in

20141006_181448

Metro-North Monthly Pass

Like a lot of commuters, I get the $130 federal commuter “benefit”, allowing me to have that huge sum of money taken out pre-tax to help buy my nearly $400 monthly train pass.  It isn’t a lot of money but at least it is something.  My hope is Congress some day gets its act together and returns it to the 2013 level of $245.  I mean, the parking benefit is now written into law at $250 which I am not going to comment on other to say the parking benefit is written into law at $250.

In the meantime, all of us lowly train dwellers with our $130 firmly in hand like a two year-old’s blanket, drag ourselves to the ticket window or machine each month to purchase a monthly pass.  My $130 is loaded to a debit card which, in theory, should make it quite handy.  The problem is Metro-North does not allow you to use two cards to make a purchase at the window or the machine for monthlies.  For all of us who rarely carry cash, it is either one card and write a check.  Look, I know Dave Ramsey wants me to use only cash, and pay off all my debts by delivering pizzas and starting my own Etsy business but I’m not there yet.  I would like to use two cards.  But, if that’s your policy, that’s fine.  I hear you Metro-North.  You’re a public benefit corporation established by MTA (with Connecticut) to own, operate, and/or manage suburban commuter trains a little more than 30 years ago that has made a strategic business decision to not get hit with credit card fees twice on the same purchase.  I get it.  As Bill O’Reily might say, “Just looking out for the folks!”  Or, maybe the computers system just is not up-to-date. It’s fine.

Oh, wait.  What is that Metro-North website?

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 10.03.20 PM

 

If you participate in the Mail&Ride on the web program, you can pay with two credit/debit cards  If the Metro-North Mail&Ride program can, why can’t the rest of Metro-North?

It is probably a different computer system that handles the transactions.  It is a separate group somewhere in Kansas or Guam mailing commuters monthly passes each, um, month.  Oh, wait, I’m sorry what is that?  The Mail & Ride program has service windows at Grand Central.  So, the people that take two credit cards work right next to the people who can’t, for the same railroad.

Mail & Ride Windows at Grand Central Terminal

Mail & Ride Windows at Grand Central Terminal

People train run out of Stubbville

When ever I get in the car for my trek to the train station this time of year, in the wee hours of the Hudson Valley morn, I realize I could have it worse. Sure, it is cold and dark.  But, I could be Neil Page and Del Griffith.  The characters, played  by Steve Martin and John Candy, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles unfortunately had to sit in the back of Owen’s pickup truck on their way to the “people train” because “‘lessen you are a hog or a cattle” you aren’t getting one in Wichita. “People train run out of Stubbville.”

20131231-220648.jpg

With that in mind, and the mass transit use tax subsidy now cut in half, now is as good as any time to shop around to see if I nee to change my “Stubbville.”

TRAINS: 

Image

Beacon Metro-North Station – August 2013

Beacon:  Pros – Lots of super express trains, lots of express trains, lots of trains, did I mention there are a lot of trains.  Plus, a Coffee/Snack shop on the platform.  Cons – Most expensive mass transit option, station configuration creates massive traffic jams, ass numbing seats in the old “Shoreliner” passenger cars and because of its location on the edge of the Hudson River by far the coldest train station I’ve ever used.

Time:  Best Case – 20 minute drive to the station.  Hit one of the express trains that goes non-stop to Harlem and GCT (some are under 70 minutes).  Then, a ride on the 4/5 subway downtown.  Door to door it is 2:15 each way if I am living right.  Probably more like 2:25-2:30.

Money:  Unlimited monthly:  $443 plus $20/month parking.  $20/month to cross the Newburgh – Beacon Bridge and a tank of gas every couple of weeks.  Plus, if I don’t want to walk 30 blocks add another $100 for subway rides.

Grand Total:  A hair under $700/month

Salisbury Mills-Cornwall Metro-North Station/Daniel Case from Wikipedia April 2007

Salisbury Mills – Cornwall:  Pros – Cheaper, newer cars with better seats, and you get to ride through NEW JERSEY!  Cons –  You get to ride through NEW JERSEY forcing a transfer in Secaucus to get to New York Penn Station, the longer ride, and the station is in the middle of no where.

Time:  30 minute drive to the station.  Best ride is between 78 and 84 minutes from Salisbury to NYP with the necessary Secaucus transfer with, for me, the 20 minute walk.  Probably looking at 2:30-2:35 if you hit it all right.

Money:  Unlimited Monthly:  $367 plus $20/month parking.  No bridge to cross so no tolls.  The drive is 5 miles longer so let’s throw in an extra half of a tank of gas for the month.  No MetroCard needed for the subway because we are walking.

Grand Total:  Lets say $525/month

BUS:

Shortline Bus in Newburgh/October 2008/Adam E. Moreira

Shortline:  

Pros:  Cheapest option, potentially no Port Authority stop, free parking  Cons:  Commuter plan somewhat rigid, You’ve ridden a bus, sorry motorcoach, right?

Time:  20 minute drive to the bus station.  1:33 – 1:40 trip (the bus stops near my office)  Parking free.  Probably 2:15 door to door if we don’t hit traffic however unlikely that sounds.

Money:  $303.85/month.  No subway and no parking charge.

Grand Total:  Around $400/month.

Driving:  

Traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, November 2012

Traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, November 2012

Google Maps says it is about 1:30 door to door for the 148 mile round trip.  That’s at two in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve Monday.  You are going to use at least two and half tanks of gas a week ($600/month) and have to pay the tolls on the Thruway and to go over Tappan Zee, GWB or through the Lincoln.  You also have to pay for parking.  The garage near my office is $600/month.  Hey, I can use my pre-tax parking benefit!

Grand Total:  NOT AN OPTION

Happy New Year!

Go F Yourself, Mass Transit Users

You probably remember the scene from Anchorman when Ron Burgundy is on the phone in the phone booth with Brian Fantana after Baxter is punted off the bridge.  Brian asks Ron where he is and Ron responds, “I am in a glass case of emotion.”

I know how you feel Ron Burgundy.  I know how you feel.

Except, this is not a funny movie.  This is the latest comedic effort from Washington.

Starting January 1st, the federal government’s pretax mass transit expense benefit will fall – again – from $245 to $130 per month.  What it means for most NYC mass transit commuters is that you will now be paying at least some of your monthly transit expenses after taxes unless you live in or really, really close to the City (subway, PATH, NJT Bus from Hoboken and others).  For me, it means $115 more dollars coming out of my pocket after taxes each month.  That’s $1380 per year for me.

It’s an economic stimulus plan if I’ve ever seen one.

This is not the first time it has changed.  In ’09 it was $120.  Then it was $230.  Then it was $125.  Then it was $245.  Now, we are at $130.  Budgeting this way makes as much sense as Brian Fantana’s explanation of ‘Sex Panther’.

There is a similar benefit for people who drive their cars and park.  It went UP to $250/month.  Nice.  It appears the driving commuter lobby has the ear of Congress a bit better than the mass transit commuter lobby.

All that said, I would find it hard to believe riders from the Hudson Valley will be heading back behind the wheel come the New Year because of the change.  And, as Congress has done in the past, they could always revise the amount.  What I believe it will do is make people like me reassess commuting options and find cheaper ways to get where they need to go.  More on that in a future post.