Millions of Canadians use public transit every day to get to and from work or school, and the cost of such public transit use can run to hundreds of dollars each month. In order to encourage the use of public transit, the federal government provides a non-refundable tax credit to taxpayers who purchase monthly (or longer) transit passes throughout the year. The cost of shorter duration passes may also qualify for the credit if they are for a minimum 5-day period and enough of them are purchased to provide the purchaser with 20 days of unlimited travel each month.

The credit itself is equal to 15% of the amount of eligible public transit costs incurred, with no limit on that amount. So, a taxpayer who purchased a $250 monthly commuter train pass each month for the entire year could claim a credit of $450. ($250 ×12 ×15%) and reduce his or her federal taxes by that amount.

The full potential of the public transit tax credit, however, is realized when eligible public transit costs incurred by members of a family are combined. Many users of public transit are high school or university students, who use transit for reasons of economy. However, for most such students, their income for the year is unlikely to be high enough (over about $10,000 for 2010) to result in a federal tax liability. Since the public transit credit is a non-refundable one, meaning that it can only reduce federal tax otherwise payable and can’t create or increase a refund, it’s of no use to someone who doesn’t pay federal tax. And, since the credit can’t be carried over, but must be claimed in the year the qualifying expense is incurred, any potential credit in the hands of someone who isn’t taxable for federal purposes would simply be lost.

Recognizing this reality, the federal tax rules governing the public transit tax credit permit all eligible costs incurred by a taxpayer, his or her spouse, and any of their children who are under the age of 19 (which would in many cases include children at university) to be combined and claimed on either spouse’s return, as follows. If the taxpayer in the example above spent $3,000 ($250 per month) for eligible public transit costs, his or her spouse spent a like amount, and each of their two teenage children incurred $100 per month in eligible public transit costs, then the total claim would be as follows:

Taxpayer – $3,000

Spouse – $3,000

Teenage child – $1,200

Teenage child – $1,200

TOTAL – $8,400 ×15% = $1,260

It doesn’t matter which spouse claims the total eligible public transit costs of $8,400, as the total credit will remain $1,260, no matter who makes the claim. What matters is that the person making the claim has at least $1,260 in federal tax payable after all other non-refundable credits (e.g., personal credit) are claimed, so that that credit can be fully utilized.

Please remember that you will need the actual transit pass with the dollar amount on it.  Cash register receipts or Visa card receipts are NOT valid. 

As the tax filing deadline gets closer and closer, it’s true that the chances to make any really significant changes to one’s tax liability for the year diminish. But, nonetheless, paying close attention to the details when filing can produce a better bottom line result—and an incentive to start planning earlier next year!