Commuters could access higher transit benefits by February

Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir,Metro,Metro and Traffic

Commuters around the Washington region could be able to start tapping into higher federal transit benefits as soon as February, but they'll need to act fast to sign up if they want the new levels to take effect that soon.

Congress approved legislation last week to raise the limit this year for federal transit benefits to $240 per month, up from $125 per month. That puts transit riders on equal footing with those who park cars after the transit benefits dropped for 2012. The benefits are given outright to workers, as in the case of most local federal employees, or they are deducted from paychecks before taxes.

But the legislation was signed into law only on Jan. 2, weeks after many commuters had signed up for how much money they need to pay their Metro, Virginia Railway Express, MARC or other fares each month. So they can't get bigger paycheck deductions this month.

However, Metro spokesman Philip Stewart said employers probably will be able to have new levels take effect for February. The key is for commuters to change the monthly contribution by the January cutoff date, which is set by employers. He said employers typically use the 15th day of the month as the deadline.

Jody Dietel, chief compliance officer at WageWorks Inc., which administers such benefits for companies around the country, also said employers could likely make the changes by February.

"Obviously, everybody is scrambling to try to comply and make it effective," she said.

But what isn't clear is how companies and federal agencies can make the higher levels retroactive for all of 2012 as the law specified. "We really need guidance from Treasury and the IRS to understand how retroactivity would work," Dietel said. "We're just not sure."

WageWorks and Metro officials are seeking guidance from federal officials.

The increased levels are especially a boon to long-distance train riders, who are more likely to use more than the $125 limit. A rider traveling the peak distance during rush periods on Metro every weekday spends about $230 per month.

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