Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Commuter Benefits


Fiscal cliff deal restores transit benefit

Congress reached a deal to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," and transit riders get a bonus: the Senate included a provision raising the federal transit benefit to $240 per month.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Today, employers can offer their workers a pretax deduction for transit of up to $125 per month, and some employers, including the federal government, will give that much in transit fare to workers outright as an extra perk. The benefit was $230 per month until the beginning of last year, when a provision in the law expired and it reset to a lower level.

There's a similar benefit for parking costs, but workers can deduct more than for transitup to $240 per month since the start of 2012. Some members of Congress had been trying to restore parity between transit and parking benefits, and got it into the Senate's transportation bill in March, but the provision didn't survive into the final bill.

The bill Congress just approved for the "fiscal cliff" contains this provision, meaning benefits go up to $240 per month, several people have confirmed. Unfortunately, it's still only temporary, as this new level expires again at the end of 2013 unless Congress extends it once more.

Technically, the new level is also retroactive until the start of 2012, but unlike with tax credits you can claim on this April's taxes for activities in 2012, there's no way for riders to realistically take advantage of it for months gone by.

Tom Bulger, a WMATA board member and lobbyist who's been pushing for the extension, noted that Congressional Republicans had been strongly opposed to any changes in law that increase any taxes, including letting previous tax cuts expire, but hadn't extended that same passion to the transit benefit.

Even if House Republicans just went along somewhat reluctantly with a Senate deal yesterday, in approving this extension, they were now able to give many American workers a tax cut along with helping our cities function more effectively and ending one small example of the many ways government "picks winners and losers" among transportation modes.


Breakfast tweets: Drops on Metro

Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.
  • Weekend ridership falls on Metro after aggressive trackwork starts (Examiner, @kytja, @perkinsms)
  • Crime on Metro drops in 3rd quarter of 2011 (Post, @vebah)
  • A group of senators is pushing to extend the commuter tax benefit before it runs out (The Hill, @ajfroggie)
  • Even the Competitive Enterprise Institute opposes GOP plan to subsidize roads with oil drilling revenue (National Review, @MilesGrant)
  • Study shows WI "non-users fork over $779 per household for roads, as opposed to $50 for transit" (Streetsblog, @MilesGrant)
  • Whole Foods in Riverdale Park delayed again; town unhappy with proposed connection to surrounding n'hoods (Patch, @justupthepike)
  • In DC, you're 4x more likely to have somebody drive into you on purpose than anywhere else on the planet (NPR, @cityglaze)
  • Staunton News Leader calls on @BobMcDonnell to support a higher gas tax (News Leader, @MilesGrant)
  • London Tube Map made out of Drinking Straws by artist Kyle Bean (The Slow Hunch, @nickgrossman, @perkinsms)
  • Gabe Klein grew up in a Virginia ashram and played D&D with Rivers Cuomo (Grid Chicago, @Naparstek, @bogrosemary)


Could transit benefits attract zoo members?

Any avid "zoogoer" will tell you that becoming a Friend of the National Zoo (FONZ) is a no-brainer. For car owners, one perk stands out among the generous benefits: free parking.

Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo on Flickr.

A quick cost-benefit analysis shows why drivers appreciate the free parking benefit, in particular. Up to three hours of parking in the zoo lots would cost $15 according to the recently revised parking rates.

A household, for example, pays $60 tax-deductible dues per year. Even in the unlikely case that the family exclusively joined the for the free parking, the break-even would be four trips at the most. Four trips in a year is nothing for folks who love to visit our zoo.

Drivers receive free parking. For those who travel to the zoo by transit, bike, or foot, what kind of perk could the National Zoo offer that would create equally compelling reason to join?

It's important to note that parking is not necessarily the main or only reason that people become a FONZ. Some donors join the zoo at the household or individual member level (or higher) simply because they want to support the National Zoo. Some members like the reciprocal discounted or free admission at over 100 other zoos and aquariums.

The discounts on food and souvenirs are nice. And there's the not-so-widely-publicized free bag of animal crackers for members' children at the customer service/stroller rental kiosks. All of these benefits, a cool magazine and supporting the zoo accrue to members whether someone uses the zoo parking lots or not.

Increasing visitor traffic arriving by means other than car would help the zoo, even beyond the increase in people able to enjoy and appreciate the animals. More foot traffic at the exhibits would drive additional concession revenue. Heavy vehicle congestion on busy days often causes the zoo to use its finite police force to direct traffic. Full parking lots lead to long waits in idling cars, unsatisfied visitors who decide to leave rather than wait and increased attempts to park on nearby neighborhood streets.

A FONZ member benefits program for non-drivers would need to be compelling for visitors and easy for the zoo to administer. It also would need to make financial sense to the zoo, with the new benefits costing the same if not less per member visit than the costs of offering free parking. (This posting will not examine the costs of free parking, as it has been covered and debated in other postings.)

Bus/Rail: Could the zoo and Metro develop a way to provide discounts on Metro Rail or Metro Bus trips when FONZ members visit the zoo?

Bike: Could the zoo permit the setup of Capital BikeShare locations with special incentives for FONZ members when they dock a bike at the zoo? Could the zoo, in partnership with local bike shops, purchase discount gift cards for distribution to zoo members who park their own bike in a designated area at the zoo for at least a certain amount of time?

Walk: Could the zoo provide additional FONZ member benefits for those who walk to the zoo from their neighborhood or hotel?

Car: Could the zoo modify existing free parking benefits to encourage families or friends with multiple memberships to carpool instead of each using their free parking with a separate vehicle?

Understandably, it's easy for the zoo to provide free parking. It's a well established process in use by recreational facilities and malls around the world. It's easy to verify whether someone arrived by car. (However, as the January 1, 2011 change in parking rates from unlimited to "up to three hours" shows, a site needs to ensure that the free parking is not abused.)

Transit, bike, or foot benefits for zoo members would take some analysis and integration by the zoo and potential partners such as Metro and Capital Bikeshare. These new benefits would not be free, though neither is the existing parking benefit truly free.

How could the National Zoo could provide these or other innovative benefits for FONZ members who arrive by transit, bike or foot?


Is the federal transit benefit actually bad?

The federal government should discontinue the transit benefit.

Photo by aliciagriffin.

Now that I have your attention, hear me out.

Federal employees in the national capital region get direct transportation up to $230 per month, which they can use to pay for transit or vanpool service. To qualify for the benefit, they have to give up parking privileges.

While this policy encourages transit use and discourages single occupancy vehicle commuting, it does that in a way that encourages Metro and other transit providers to increase fares. The policy also ignores the benefits to society and to employees of shorter commutes, like those on bikes or on foot. Eliminating both the transit and parking benefits and providing employees with flexible funds for transportation would remove these problematic incentives.

When WMATA proposes increasing peak hour fares, many commuters are not affected, because they receive a transit subsidy which covers their whole commute. This reduces the pressure on WMATA to hold down fares for everyone, and encourages a fare policy that attempts to raise peak fares even higher to collect more of this subsidy. Meanwhile, the cost difference between peak rail and bus grows, causing poorer residents to take much longer and less efficient bus routes to save money.

Another example of a transit agency reacting to this policy was when Fairfax Connector raised the fare on their Reston to Pentagon express routes. The $7 one-way fare was over the $230 limit, but what kind of support do you think an increase of 133% would have if most of that change were paid by riders?

The policy encourages long-distance commutes, by making a short bus or rail ride effectively the same cost as an extended ride on MARC or VRE. But those shorter rides don't cost the regional governments the same. Commuter rail infrastructure is expensive, and VRE, for example, is becoming limited in capacity by their railway fleet. Long-distance Metro riders take up space in crowded railcars which could go to people currently being left at stations because the cars are full.

The policy of free, unlimited transit ignores an even cheaper, self propelled mode of transit: walking and cycling. A work colleague lives just two blocks away, and has a five minute commute. Another rides his bike from Alexandria more than one day a week. Yet my commute, from Falls Church, receives more government support, even though theirs is even more energy efficient, environmentally friendly, and healthier.

So how could we change this? First, instead of giving away parking and then giving everyone free transit of they don't use it, give everyone the same amount of money that they can use on any mode they like. Start charging market rates for parking, but increase pay by something like $150 a month.

Walking or biking would be encouraged, transit riders would be encouraged to choose shorter commutes where they can, and driving would still be discouraged, but allowed. The policy would be more flexible, allowing people to choose to occasionally ride a bike, take transit or even drive, paying only for what they use, rather than having a choice between unlimited parking or essentially unlimited transit. Transit providers would no longer be able to see federal employees as a ready source of revenue without complaints. They would likely have to seek a more balanced fare policy that spreads out the cost among all riders.

Most importantly, charging people for what they use is efficient and fundamentally fair. The federal government and other employers with similar policies should encourage this efficiency and fairness by giving every employee a flat benefit and changing free parking to paid parking.

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