Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Subsidizing federal workers subsidized transportation?

Floridians love their cars and are not about to give them up to board buses or light rail.

So goes the argument by those who oppose more public spending on mass transit. Transportation funding, the transit critics say, should go toward widening snarled roads or building new ones.
No, not that.  But if we did fix the roads, transit actually would operate more effectively.   So would the drivers, who pay the taxes that pay for the roads and who subsidize transit (typically around  80% of the transit costs).  But that's not today's point.

Let's look here:
But hundreds of Floridians who work at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital forego driving personal vehicles for van pools or buses and they're loving it. Not only are they saving money on gas and vehicle wear and tear, but they're enjoying a small sense of community with workers they might never have met.


Haley workers are among the 37,155 Department of Veterans Affairs employees nationwide who take advantage of a transit benefit for federal employees. The program subsidizes the costs for van pools and public bus transportation and provides a $20-a-month stipend for bicycle commuting.

At Haley, 240 employees use 27 van pools. They receive vouchers for $185 a month to cover the cost of the van, provided by a private company, and the gas.

Another 180 Haley workers ride HART public buses, which come and go from the University Area Transit Center across the street from the hospital. The federal transit benefit pays for monthly bus passes.
$185 benefit a month to commute to and from work?  $20 if you ride a bike to work? Commuting, not business trips. Commuting, like most of us who work get to do everyday. On our own dime.
In 2012, Congress raised the allowable monthly transit benefit from $125 to $245 a month per federal employee. More than 13,000 VA employees nationwide had reported that the $125-a-month subsidy did not cover their transit costs, according to a March 4 memo from a VA official.

With the increased subsidy, the nationwide cost for the VA's share of the transit benefit is just over $50 million.
So let me get this straight.  The U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing another $50M so federal employees, paid by the U.S. taxpayer, can take transit, which is already subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer.

Granted, in the grand scheme of things with the federal budget and trillion dollar deficits, $50M is barely a drop in the bucket, barely enough for a 1/2 mile of light rail.  But when does this give away end?

What exactly makes VA or other federal workers entitled to such a subsidy?  Why, not say, an office clerk for a downtown law firm? Why not a hair stylist?  Why not a a traveling sales professional? Why not an intrepid news reporter covering news across the county? Why not a college student waiting tables part time working their way through college (Well, HART does offer some programs locally for students).
Some Haley workers don't have cars and would have a hard time getting to work without transit. Laura Palmer, a medical records technician, is legally blind. She boards a HART bus at 6:40 a.m. at her town home community on west Fletcher Avenue and arrives at the hospital at 7:30.

Because of her disability, Palmer can't risk crossing busy Fletcher Avenue to the hospital on the initial approach, so she waits until the bus loops around and drops her closer to the building. That adds 10 to 15 minutes to her commute.

Palmer was one of the voters on the losing side of a 2010 referendum to increase the county sales tax for road improvements, more buses and a light rail system. Though she is appreciative of the federal transit benefit, Palmer said she would like to see more travel options.
Legally blind, we get it.  We should... and do, offer enhanced transit for those disabled among us. HARTPlus Paratransit, for example, might be another service Laura Palmer can leverage for her transportation needs. That's a good thing.

HARTPlus Paratransit
But the able-bodied among us, and our able-bodied federal workers, should not be entitled to subsidies, any more than you or I.
“The bus system caters to everyone; there is no discrimination,” [Rodney Roberson] said. “It becomes like a family affair. You get to know people. And you get to know who to avoid.”
I would avoid telling them you're riding on their dime $2.00.

We got into a twitter discussion with Kevin Thurman, Executive Director of Connect Tampa Bay, and he stated this federal program was brought up to equalize the existing tax benefits offered the private sector. See here and here.  Thanks Kevin, for adding information that was missing in the original story.

From the Wikepedia article:
Prior to 1984, the IRS treated free employee parking, provided by an employer, as a tax-free fringe benefit regardless of the value of the parking.[6] There was no tax-free benefit for transit commuting. This parking subsidy served as an incentive, in some cases a significant incentive, to drive to work even in areas where there was a good transit alternative. Many believed that such subsidies contributed to the growing congestion on the highways. In one study conducted in the New York City metro area, as many as 64% of the solo drivers commuting into Manhattan, an area well served by transit, were receiving a parking subsidy.
So, in other words, the "free employee parking" is a fringe benefit, so they wanted transit commuters to receive similar benefits and encourage more transit, which is already heavily subsidized.  You can read the links above to further understand the program.

I'm sure we'll be reading soon how well the program works for some private sector employers in Tampa Bay.

Fine.  So the program confers benefits to certain commuters for federal and private sector workers.  Is that twice as good or twice as bad?

Here's the rub.  The benefit is only offered through "employers".  If you're self employed, good luck with getting the subsidy.  If you work for small business, it's extremely unlikely you're business has a critical mass of centrally approved commuters to take advantage of such a program, much less the time and expense it takes to stay in compliance with such a program.  If you otherwise pay taxes, and don't get this benefit, you're subsidizing big business and federal workers.

Still in doubt?  Next time you go for a haircut, ask your barber if he get's a commuting benefit.

Reminds me, I need a haircut.

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