For rail commuters, a bill with benefits
BRIDGEPORT -- A federal transportation bill making its way through Congress could save commuters who use mass transit hundreds of dollars a year, but local officials are concerned the bill could be held up in the divided U.S. House of Representatives.
The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which would retroactively extend a federal benefit that allows commuters to set aside pre-tax dollars from their paychecks toward their transportation costs.
In 2009, the limit for commuters who use mass transit was increased to up to $230 a month to match the benefit made available toward parking for commuters who drive. But that change was allowed to expire in December, while the limit for funds set aside for parking was increased to $240 a month due to inflation.
"That is not only unfair but unwise," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., "because it clogs our highways, pollutes our air and creates more environmental problems."
Blumenthal on Thursday met with Mayor Bill Finch to discuss the issue and urge House members to drop its own transportation bill and embrace the one passed by the Senate, which would make the benefits equal -- retroactive to January -- and also make them permanent.
The local officials, however, said they are concerned the chronically divided House won't be able to agree on adopting the bill. "I am concerned about anything happening in the House that is rational and sensible these days, unfortunately," Blumenthal said. He urged his fellow legislators to put aside bipartisanship and political agendas and pass the Senate's bill.
Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, is also concerned but for a different reason. "My real concern is will it go through the House intact," Cameron said. "It's not an issue as much of red states and blue states but it's much more a ganging up of the gray states. Gray meaning those who depend on roads instead of rails. They don't have much sympathy for those in the Northeast who really depend on mass transit."
Cameron noted that more than 90 percent of local commuters choose Metro-North over driving. And based on the percentage of the fare actually used toward the cost of the ride, Metro-North has the highest commuter rail fare compared to other rail services in the nation, Cameron said. wThe Senate's bill would also create funding for improvements for bridges and highways and for the purchase of fuel cells for public buses.
Just as important for cities like Bridgeport and New Haven would be a provision in the bill that urges the use of more than $5 billion in the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that has sat unused for years and is supposed to fund dredging and other harbor improvements. "No one deserves it more than the city of Bridgeport," Blumenthal said, "and I'm going to fight to make that happen."
"This has to be done or we will lose our harbor," Finch said. "The lifeblood of the harbor is dependent on whether you let it silt up a lot. And the longer you let it silt, the more expensive it (dredging) becomes. We have a port that's become dormant now because of the dredging."