Workzone: Biking commuters can roll up $20 benefit

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Remember the Bicycle Commuter Act tax credit that passed with the bank bailout, also known as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008?


Don't worry, hardly anyone else does, either.

Recently, Chatham University and its office of sustainability decided to provide the benefit for its employees. And when Paul Kovach, the university's spokesman, tried to find other local companies that were providing the same tax credit, he was at a loss.

"I tried my darndest to find someone else who was doing this, but I was unable to find anyone," he said.

The benefit is a $20-a-month credit for people who make a "substantial portion" of their commute by bicycle, to pay for purchases, repairs, storage, upgrades or helmets (padded shorts and tight shirt are excluded from the reimbursement). The employer can reimburse employees based on their expenses, offer regular monthly payments or devise some sort of voucher system.

Similar benefits are allowed for transit and parking, but they allow up to $230 a month. The bicycle benefit can be applied only in those months during which an employee does not file for transit or parking benefits.

The Internal Revenue Service does not keep track of how many companies make use of the benefits program.

Bike advocacy groups have called for more meaningful legislation.

To that end, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who had pushed for the benefit to be a much higher amount, has introduced legislation called the Green Routes to Work Bill, or H.R. 3271.

The bill calls for equity in the benefits, so that biking, transit and parking would have the same cap, which would make it easier for bike commuters to afford a new helmet or pay for fenders. It also would allow for workers to use the credit for multimodal transportation. For example, taking the bus part way and the bike the rest of the ride might qualify both up to the total cap.

In Pittsburgh, Scott Bricker, the executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, called the original legislation that recognizes bicycles as legitimate vehicles a "great first step" and added, "Clearly, Blumenauer's bill ... is the next step in making this fringe benefit even stronger."

Mr. Kovach said Chatham employees currently have the equivalent of a multimodal benefit because their identification cards are recognized as transit passes by Allegheny County Port Authority. The passes work on all Port Authority buses.

So if the bus has a rack on the front, and many do, that bus can carry bikes and allow Chatham students and workers to travel between the three campuses in Squirrel Hill, Larimer and Richland.

Mary Whitney, the university's sustainability coordinator, said five hard-core cyclists were taking advantage of the program, which was pushed by Michael Boyd, a music professor who researched the legislation and worked out the particulars with the university's human relations department.

Ms. Whitney said the reason there aren't more people using the program was that the legislation would not allow any other type of commuting to be used in the month. That means employees can't bike but also have a parking pass for days when the weather is really miserable.

After all, this is Pittsburgh.


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