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Confusion, Sweet Confusion: The Commuter Relief Act

by Stacey Moses

Two weeks ago, on June 1st, I wrote an article for Commute by Bike explaining the Commuter Relief Act. This proposed piece of legislation was introduced by longtime bicycle advocate U.S. House Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore, and it seeks to incentivize “public transit benefits, vanpools, and other market-based solutions.”

One of the provisions that was listed on Rep. Blumenauer’s website was an increase in the allowable bike benefit, from $20 to $40 per month, that employers can provide to employees who choose to commute to work by bike. This increase in bike benefits was subsequently reported by a number of bicycle-centric organizations, including the League of American Bicyclists and Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Congresman Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)

Congresman Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) | Photo: BikePortland

When researching my piece for Commute by Bike, I referenced many well-respected bike sites–from Rep. Blumenauer’s official site to reputable bike blogs such as the League of American Bicyclists and Streetsblog. All of the information regarding the increase in bike benefits was consistent; the amount would increase from $20 to $40 per month and could also be combined with other transit benefits if the Commuter Relief Act was adopted.

Admittedly, I was late to the party, reporting on the act more than a week after it was announced by Blumenauer, but the responses to the post came pouring in. Some people stated that we should stop using government funds to subsidize transportation in general and let the economics of riding a bike versus driving a car speak for themselves. Others questioned whether $40 was enough to make anyone change his or her lifestyle or if there was any chance that this legislation would even make it through the House. One reader, Jon, asked where this increase to $40 was actually written in the bill.

As it turns out, Jon posed an excellent question. I am not a lawyer, but I could not locate language in the bill itself that indicated an increase in bike benefits to $40.

In an attempt to clarify the discrepancy between the bill and the explanation on Rep. Blumenaur’s site, I filled out a contact form on his website, within which I was required to include my name and address. After spending approximately twenty minutes carefully crafting my questions to the congressman, I sent the message, only to receive the following response:

Screen Shot of Blumenauer Contact Form

Source: http://blumenauer.house.gov

Apparently, despite the fact that representatives can serve on national committees and propose legislation that can affect all Americans, you must have the correct zip code to ask the corresponding congressman a question.

Interestingly, the paragraph regarding the increase to bike benefits is no longer present on Rep. Blumenauer’s website, although the $40 benefit is still referenced in another explanation of change. Additionally, according to Jon’s comment on Commute By Bike, someone at the League confirmed his suspicion, although the League has not yet updated the blog post or responded to me directly.

MultiModal Transportation - $40 Benefit

Source: http://blumenauer.house.gov

What does all of this mean? It means that politicians’ websites are not always completely accurate when explaining proposed legislation. It means that reports regarding legislation do not always get it right the first time. And it means that getting a straight answer is not always an easy task.

Rep. Blumenauer encourages all of us to be “bike-partisan” and has been a very important supporter of bicycle advocacy in Congress. I am not suggesting that his efforts and his dedication should be diminished because of the way that the Commuter Relief Act has been presented, but I am asking for a straight answer on how this bill could potentially change the commuter benefits for cyclists.

$40

Missing: $40 If found, please return to Commuter Relief Act

 
Burley nomad 229

6 Responses to “Confusion, Sweet Confusion: The Commuter Relief Act”

  1. Andy says:

    The reason you can’t find $40 is because it’s so tiny compared to the $200 you get if you drive.

  2. Eric says:

    If politicians dealt with people outside of their districts, they might be accused of not representing their constituents’ needs. It can seem silly until you realize that the bulk of the anti-gay marriage support in California originated in Utah. It doesn’t stop people from looking up the proper zip code and faking it, of course.

  3. JaimeRoberto says:

    I’ll ask the question that I asked last time you posted on this, where is this $200 I would get if I drove? I’ve never seen that on any of my paychecks.

    As for the $40/month, what kind of bureaucracy will need to be set up to ensure that the claimants are actually riding their bikes? Or can anybody claim the $40?

    Count me as one of those who thinks “we should stop using government funds to subsidize transportation in general and let the economics of riding a bike versus driving a car speak for themselves”.

  4. Stacey Moses says:

    JaimeRoberto,

    Transportation benefits do not automatically show up on your paycheck- they are one of eight fringe benefits that employers can offer employees as a tax-free benefit. So technically, the government isn’t paying out of pocket for your parking or your commute, but employers/employees are not being taxed for this employee compensation. You can learn more about how fringe benefits work on the IRS website if you’re interested.

    And the bureaucracy already exists- it’s called the IRS, an organization that performs audits in an attempt to keep people honest. Claiming a benefit that you haven’t earned would be tax fraud.

  5. Jaime Roberto says:

    Stacey, thank you for the explanation, but I’m still a little confused. I’ve worked in a downtown area where our parking in the city garage was paid for by the company. I get that this was an untaxed benefit in the same way that health insurance benefits aren’t taxed. Does the benefit also apply to free parking that you find in most office parks? After all, the business is paying rent or a mortgage on those spaces. If the benefit is only for paid parking, it seems like this affects an exceedingly small number of people. That said, I’m ok with making paid parking a taxable benefit, but it doesn’t sound like a cause for righteous indignation.

    As far as auditing the bike benefit, I don’t see how the IRS will prove that you didn’t ride your bike unless they do a stakeout, and I don’t see how they can do that retroactively.

    The tax code is already too complicated. Let’s not complicate it further with this stuff.

  6. I am not a lawyer, but I could not locate language in the Commuter Relief form on his website, within which I was required to include my name and address. Additionally, according to Jon’s comment on Commute By Bike,

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