Commuter Benefit Changes, Changes Back

In early November, NJ Transit and MTA riders who use the TransitChek pre-tax benefit for their commutes were notified that the federal stimulus money that had extended the benefit cap from $12 to $230 was expiring on December 31, 2010. For most Baristaville riders whose companies provide the benefit, that meant we’d be going back to paying part of our monthly commuting costs out of pocket again (my NJT ticket between Maplewood and NY Penn Station is more than $200/month, which means that that the pre-tax payroll deduction only covers part of the cost; if you get a MetroCard on top of that, the benefit’s gap is even wider).

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about dealing with NJT & TransitChek, it’s to submit your paperwork for changes ASAP. The way the system works through your company’s payroll office, you need to bank your deductions 2 months in advance of each monthly ticket or MetroCard purchase; if you’re slow to file your deduction changes, you’re out of luck for a month or more.

But in this case, many of us might have filed our changes too quickly. On December 17, Congress passed a last-minute extension of the higher commuting benefit, bumping it back up to $230 for 2011.

I’m sure a lot of us are happy to get the bigger benefit again, but it’s also a small example of the big ways our legislators are often out of touch with how things actually work for most people. The extension of benefits is generally a positive story for commuters, but the political process of signaling an expiration and yanking it back as a last-minute victory misses the real-world back end: Those of us who had to spend time on hold with TransitChek to change our accounts and send paperwork to company HR offices to reduce the payroll deduction, followed by the people at TransitChek and those HR offices who had to process the changes…everyone now has to go through the same process in reverse a month later and end up right back where we began. All of which means that now we have a month or two of not getting the full benefit, since the payroll deductions won’t re-adjust immediately.

To get more information about the TransitCheck benefit and how the change passed by Congress might affect your ride, visit njtransit.com/taxbenefits.

Photo courtesy of NJ Transit.

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