Congress’ favorite sacrificial lambs

Posted on October 29, 2010 by Nicole Schlosser

This week, I was disappointed with two pieces of news: New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie’s second declaration that he will not support the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel, and that the commuter benefit cap, currently at $230, will, more likely than not, be reduced back to its pre-stimulus level of $120.


The $230 cap will sunset on Dec. 31, 2010, barring any last-minute changes in Congress, and with the mid-term elections taking the lion’s share of the attention, it’s doubtful that will happen.


Dan Neuburger, president and CEO of TransitCenter, a New York-based, nonprofit organization and provider of tax-free commuter benefits, says that there is still a high degree of support in Congress for the benefit. In a conversation that I had with him yesterday, he told me that he believes that members of Congress across the country will join together in supporting the benefit extension. Still, it won’t be in time to maintain the benefit at the $230 level for early 2011.


Slashing the allowance will mainly impact commuters in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Boston where cost of commuting is greater than $120. Neuberger estimates that between 850,000 and a million people across the country take advantage of the benefit.


Neuburger hopes that the Senate Finance Committee takes the lead role in addressing the upcoming reduction in the lame duck session at the end of this year. “We just want to get it attached to legislation that has some chance of passing. We have yet to meet a member of congress that has not told us they are, quote, unquote, our friends, that they support us getting this done,” he said. “This piece of legislation has historically had bipartisan support, but we’re still in the spot we were in: we haven’t gotten it attached to legislation that has been voted on favorably.”


I trust that Neuburger is right, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of a recent piece in the New Yorker, “As the World Burns.” It describes the frustrating ordeal of how Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) managed to unite a rarely found coalition of environmentalists and industries to back a bill that took action to “shift the economy away from carbon consumption and toward environmentally sound sources of energy.”


The congressmen even had support from both the major green groups and “the biggest polluters,” as the author, Ryan Lizza, puts it. However, their momentum ground to a screeching halt once the deal-making began. Plenty of congressmen and women told them they supported the bill, but when it came time to vote? Not so much. Now, if that well-loved and charismatic trifecta can’t make it work, well, what hope is there?


And, of course, this frustration isn’t just felt at the federal level. I recently interviewed transit advocacy groups across the U.S. for a story that will appear in the November/December issue. I was very intrigued by comments from Wiley Norvell, formerly the communications director at New York-based Transportation Alternatives. He pointed to the New York state legislature as the main albatross around the New York MTA’s neck. Elected officials in Albany voted to rip $143 million from the MTA budget, necessitating the biggest in modern memory this past year. “If any new funding measures are going to come to our rescue, like congestion pricing, it has to happen in Albany. It’s not within the MTA’s breadth to see those measures enacted. There’s a very important responsibility that state legislators have with respect to funding transit. We don’t feel in all honesty they’ve been living up to [that],” Norvell said.


While I understand that politics is a complicated and messy business, and this is nothing new, I still couldn’t help but feel this week that we’d get so much more done if Congress would just get out of the way.

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