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.
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).
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.