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November 4th, 2009 JONATHAN CROWL | News Stories
 

Gimme A Break

Earl Blumenauer’s bill pays people to ride their bikes to work, but not everyone’s cashing in yet.

     
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When U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer got the Bicycle Commuter Act passed in October 2008, the Oregon Democrat said he expected widespread use of the financial incentive aimed at getting more commuters to ride.

One year later, Blumenauer’s spokewsoman, Erin Allweiss, says 500 companies nationally have signed up since the law went into effect in January. But curiously, so far it appears none of the participating companies is located in Portland, according to Jay Retkevicz, an executive for Accor Services USA, which administers the benefit.

“We haven’t heard from any [Portland] companies, even though they’re supposedly our biggest bike market,” Retkevicz says.

Depending on whom you talk to, the number of businesses participating nationwide is either a huge success or a slight disappointment.

The legislation long sought by Blumenauer, founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Bike Caucus, added bike subsidies to an existing program that creates incentives for commuters to use alternative forms of transportation to get to work, including car pools and buses.

Specifically, Blumenauer’s bill lets employers provide a $20 monthly subsidy to bicycling employees by allowing the employer to deduct that amount from their federal taxes owed.

League of American Bicyclists spokeswoman Meghan Cahill says her Washington, D.C.-based organization likes the act but recognizes it could be improved. Cahill says the main improvement would provide a larger financial incentive to cycling commuters.

“You definitely end up using more than $20 a month on your bicycle,” Cahill says, citing expenses such as equipment and maintenance.

The act also says people who get any bicycle subsidies can’t get financial incentives for other types of commuting. Thus, if cyclists opt to ride the bus on a rainy day, they don’t qualify for benefits provided by the Transportation Fringe Benefits Program.

Cahill says these restrictions may deter potential cyclists. Although the federal subsidy is the first of its kind for bicyclists, involvement “hasn’t been as widespread as people might have thought,” she says.

Scott Bricker, executive director of the local Bicycle Transportation Alliance, says he believes the act “with time…will become a very popular program for bike commuters.”

And Allweiss, the Blumenauer spokeswoman, says her boss would like to see more money going to the program.

She says the representative is drafting legislation that aims to raise the monthly subsidy in an effort to encourage greater use of the subsidy by cyclists.

How much the subsidy would be increased and when the bill gets introduced remain to be determined, Allweiss says. But in the meantime, she says, the current legislation “has been really effective.”

“Prior to January, there was nothing for cyclists,” Allweiss says. “Actually, articles like this only help to draw attention to it.”


FACT: To learn more about the act, go to bikeleague.org/news/100708faq.php.
 
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