Relief, Sweet Relief: The Commuter Relief Act

Update: See “Confusion, Sweet Confusion: The Commuter Relief Act” for Stacey’s search for answers to the questions raised by this article.

Recently, U.S. House Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore, proposed the Commuter Relief Act. This legislation, which is co-sponsored by Virginia’s Jim Moran (D) and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono (D), seeks to equalize the field for all types of commuters, including cyclists.

Earl Blumenauer
Photo: Earl Blumenauer

Currently, transportation benefits do not discourage single-occupant automobile drivers in the U.S. (I know, a shocking revelation). The cap for parking benefits through employers is $230, whereas the cap for public transit users is set to drop to $130 at the end of 2011. Cyclists can receive up to $20 per month, but this amount cannot be combined with other transportation benefits.

The Commuter Relief Act would balance caps for all transportation benefits. Blumenauer’s legislation would allow commuters to receive $200 for parking (or take the lump sum in cash) or $200 for public transportation.

Importantly for cyclists, the Commuter Relief Act would raise the amount that bicycle commuters can receive per month to $40, and it would allow cyclists to receive this amount in combination with public transportation benefits. If the transit cap is $200, an employee who uses both a bicycle and public transportation could receive $40 for cycling and the remaining $160 for subway or bus fare (or maybe one day, high speed rail).

Bike Parking Barcelona
Photo: NotionsCapital

This is an incredibly sensible and sustainable change. Why should bike commuters be forced to forfeit more than $100 in commuting benefits for choosing a bicycle over public transportation? What are the positive benefits for the environment, for the community, and for public health in subsidized parking? As for the economic benefit of the Commuter Relief Act, the impact cars of on the road is exponentially greater than the impact of cyclists and pedestrians, meaning less money spent on repairing torn up pavement.

At least as much as it is an incentive for potential cyclists and potential adopters of alternative modes of transportation, the Commuter Relief Act is a statement that we cannot continue to prioritize parking subsidies over cleaner, less expensive and more sustainable forms of transportation. This legislation will not revolutionize how people in America get to work–many people who will take advantage of these benefits are already riding or taking the subway to work. But to lower transit benefits and to maintain parking subsidies seems like a rather irresponsible move by the government, and fortunately, Representative Blumenauer has a better idea.

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11 thoughts on “Relief, Sweet Relief: The Commuter Relief Act”

  1. Andy says:

    This is still pointless carbon-centric benefits. Why do cyclists only receive 20% of the benefit that someone using a car or transit get? If you really want to promote a better transportation system, then flip those numbers around. Incentivize cycling instead of driving, and keep transit as an intermediate step, but don’t spend my tax dollars to fund drivers 5 times more than cyclists. Or just do away with these handouts all together and let the cheapest option win.

  2. JaimeRoberto says:

    What is this $230 parking benefit you speak of? I don’t recall ever seeing this on any of my paychecks. Is the idea that in some places the employer pays for the employee’s parking and can write it off as an expense? If so, I think this effects only a small percentage of people. This new program sounds like another waste of money at a time when government should be saving money. If you want to discourage driving (or at least make driving revenue neutral for the government), then raise the gas tax to a level that will pay for road building and maintenance. That way the user pays. As long as the roads are revenue neutral, then I don’t think it is any of the government’s business if I am driving alone or with others.

  3. Larey says:

    If they wanted to be fair and effective the federal government could lead the way by charging every employee $1.00 (or more) per day to park their cars at work. That way anyone who didn’t drive would benefit, regardless of what mode of transportation they used or even how often they didn’t drive. It would sure save a lot of paperwork.

  4. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    On a simular note. Why don’t people who create a life where they can walk to work get a tax break?

    I do not ride bicycles, walk or ride the bus to work or shopping for a tax break..

    I really do question people changing thier lives for a $40 tax break…

    I agree, commuter bicyclists, walkers and public tranportaioners should get $200, single occupancy motor vehicle motorist should pay $200 for and carpoolers break even.

  5. Chuck says:

    “Show me the money!” Being the greedy little bastards we (Americans) are… this program doesn’t offer enough incentive (and IMO the wrong type of incentive, $$$) to fly.

    When the Renewable Energy Act was passed in ’99(?) I spoke to my employer about it. After we looked at the real numbers; for the tax credit to have any value, the Company needed to be able to claim a majority of its employees for the credit to off-set the expence of recording, applying for and disbursing the credit.

  6. Seems Rep. Blumenauer proposal is a sensible step in the right direction. Unfortunately, with the current composition of the House, it just makes for some pleasing press for his constituency. It will never get anywhere.

  7. Stacey Moses says:

    I think that the combination of Andy and Columbus commuter’s response is what shaped this proposal- if Blumenauer wants to have a realistic chance of securing any additional benefits for cyclists, proposing to completely do away with all parking or public transportation benefits isn’t going to get very far in Congress.

  8. Jon says:

    I haven’t been able to find corroboration for the $40 cycling benefit. The text of the Commuter Relief Act (H.R. 1825) doesn’t include an increase in the cycling benefit. Either it’s already at $40, or there’s a typo on Rep. Blumenauer’s press release.
    Still, I support setting the benefit at parity across all modes.

  9. Stacey Moses says:

    Hi Jon,

    The current cap for cycling benefits is $20. Rep. Blumenauer’s official website as well as the League of American Bicyclist’s site both report that the Commute Relief Act, if passed into legislation, will increase the benefit from $20 to $40.

    I’m not exactly sure where it is listed in the bill, but I would imagine that Blumenauer’s site would have been updated/corrected if this increase was not actually included in the bill.

  10. Jon says:

    Yes, I read both the sites you mentioned. I’ve also read the bill through three or four times. The words “$40”, “40”, and “forty” are not in the bill, at least not in relation to the bicycling benefit.
    I WANT it to be true, but I just don’t see where in the bill it’s found. It’d be great if somebody could point it out. Maybe it has to do with the language adjusting the inflation baseline year?
    I emailed Blumenauer’s staff though his website, but their canned message says they don’t respond to people who don’t live in his district, and I don’t.

  11. Jon says:

    Update: I emailed the League of American Bicyclists, and they agree the bill doesn’t change the bicycling benefit. 🙁
    They’re going to update that blog post.

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