In 1993, newly elected president Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore put together a Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). The year before that, then-president George H. W. Bush had signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which committed the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. The CCAP was intended to lay out a comprehensive set of strategies - or actions - that would meet these obligations and "respond to the threat of global climate change and guide the United States toward environmentally sound economic growth." (And that's why climate change is no longer an issue. Wait, what?) Interestingly, CCAP doesn't mention bicycles or cycling at all. It does, however, mention parking and that is how bike commuting gets into the mix.
Action #19 proposed a cash-out option for employees who currently get free parking. Employees given free parking at work would have been given the option of retaining the parking space, or accepting a cash allowance equal to the market cost of the parking space. Because the cash-out would be taxable, this program would have the added benefit of reducing the deficit by $2.2B over the next 6 years. While this doesn't mention biking, it's easy to see how this would benefit bike commuters. This action was made possible, though not mandatory, with the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.
At the same time that the Clinton administration was addressing un-taxed free parking as a way of dealing with climate change, it was also dealing with the impending expiration of the 3-year transit benefit program (the "Mikulski Amendment"). That program had been offering some federal employees $60 a month in tax-free transit benefits in lieu of the $155 tax-free parking benefit since the beginning of the year as an effort to clean up the air, reduce energy use and reduce congestion. It had shown some success as 21% of the people taking the benefit had switched to transit once it was created. But the benefit was unfunded so only about half of all agencies offered it.
As a way to make the transit benefit available to more people, the administration submitted the Transit Benefit Program Act of 1993. It aimed to make the transit benefit program permanent and would have permitted Federal agencies to charge up to commercial equivalent rates for parking space and related services and then use that revenue to defray the cost of the transit benefit program. The idea was not popular with the federal employees unions, just as it had not been popular when proposed in 1979.
At the time the DOT bill was submitted and CCAP was completed Del Eleanor Holmes Norton held hearings on the mass transit subsidy program available to Federal employees and included in those hearings were bicycle advocates (like Allen Greenberg of LAB -then LAW- and Warren Stern of WABA) and others (such as the Campaign for New Transportation Priorities, the Surface Transportation Policy Project and who wanted to see the program expanded to include those who commuted to work by bike or foot. They also suggested that agencies be able to use some of the parking revenue to provide secure bicycle parking.
LAB suggested that the subsidy be offered to all commuters, except those who drive alone, regardless of commuting cost (which is basically a cash out).
The current policy of basing an employee commute subsidy on the employee's cost of a particular commute option doesn't make sense. By this logic, the highest subsidy would be provided to those commuting by helicopter and airplane and the smallest subsidy to environment-friendly bicycle and walking commuters who are frequently less affluent than their car-commuting coworkers.
Warren Stern of WABA testified that if commuter costs must be included, then the benefit should still be offered to those who commuter by bike or foot.
While I think that we all agree that minimizing pollution and energy usage is in the public interest, the net effect of the current employee incentive program is in many cases contrary to this objective. Employees that use the most polluting form of transportation, those who drive, receive the largest incentive. Employees who use the least polluting and the least energy intensive form of transportation — that is bicycling, walking — are excluded from the program. To me, this doesn't make sense.
Assistant Secretary Stoll of DOT testified last week that we needed to question the assumptions we have made that favor auto- mobile transportation over public transportation. I believe we also need to question the assumptions we have made that favor motorzed transportation of all forms over nonmotorized forms of transportation.Secretary Stoll testified that incentives for use of public transportation should be extended and increased so that public transportation can compete effectively on an equal basis with automobile transportation. Mr. Mead of the GAO testified that by making the playing field more even, agencies participating in the program were able to encourage people to ride Metro. That is, if by minimizing the disadvantages of one form of transportation; that is, the cost associated with driving, it obscures the benefits of other forms such as bicycling and the use of public transportation.
We at WABA believe that the administration's proposal should be expanded to provide a comparable subsidy for bicyclists. We believe that bicycle commuting is a legitimate form of transportation and should not be excluded from Government support. We believe it should be treated in the same way as public transportation is treated. While bicycle commuting isn't for everyone, it deserves a level playing field with other forms of transportation.
Madam Chairwoman, there is no form of transportation that meets the societal goals that we all support better than bicycle transportation. Every person who commutes by bicycle is not in a car or another polluting form of transportation. The benefits of bi- cycle commuting don't stop there. Bicycling is healthy. This is advantageous — this advantage is becoming even more important in light of the Federal efforts to deal with our current health-care crisis.
We simply propose that bicycles be treated on a par with public transportation, that the Government subsidy policy be neutral as it relates to public transportation and bicycles. Whatever standards of accountability are required for the public transportation subsidy can also be met by bicycles.
Some assume that bicycle commuting is free and, therefore, it does not deserve a subsidy. This is a false assumption. I have submitted to the record some estimates I have made, and these actu- ally fall very closely to estimates other groups have made for bicy- cle commuting costs. I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have on this estimate, but the bottom line is that it costs roughly $600 per year to commute by bicycle. These costs break down into roughly $50 annualized for a new bicycle each year, $350 for normal maintenance and part replacement, and $150 a year for access to showers. This is an important point. Federal agencies, at least the one I work for, offer free parking, but for those people who bike to work or walk to work and may desire showers, they have to pay for it.
Stern went on to talk about how much shower access cost ($50 a month) and the time spent maintaining a bike. Norton questioned him on that part "You want a subsidy for keeping your bicycle in decent shape? You think that really should be included in what the Government would pay for?"
Norton then went on to question the group of speakers who wanted to expand the benefit to those who don't take transit. It seems like she was trying to hear the arguments she would need to expand the program, because she later states that.
I would like this legislation to be as comprehensive as possible, and I would like to get it passed, and I would like not to see some amendment to strike part of my bill. I would like to see recognition of cycling and walking in this bill, and I think that would be a breakthrough.
And I would like to see ideas — not that cash-out ideas that won't flow because we don't have the data and, even if we did, we don't know if we would apply in a given situation. We are experimenting with whether or not we will even get pay for parking, and of course we need to get it in the agency^s own budget. But what I do think is missing are enough specifics on what the bill might say that could be written into it this time indicating that the committee wants agencies to recognize the entire spectrum of alternatives to the car. And I would ask you — since I am going to vote and I am going to end this hearing now, I would ask you, to the extent that you are able and have ideas that you might work through, to be in touch with the staff so that this bill could, in fact, for the first time be truly comprehensive.
At one point she is asking about the goal that is achieved through such an expansion and Stern notes that "the fundamental goal is to clean the air, and I believe that there is nothing that meets that goal on a per dollar basis better than including bicycles in the subsidy." Stern crtiticizes the administration for making transit expansion the goal instead of the means to a goal like clean air or better health.
She also tries to understand how the cash out is paid for, because getting one fewer person to drive to work doesn't make the cost of parking that already exists go down. "Nobody's going to sell off the land."
Stern drops in a nice statistic in support of funding bicycling,
a Harris poll...concluded that 18 percent of adults — that is several million people — say that they would sometimes commute by work by bicycle if employers offered financial incentives.
Regardless of the testimony and Norton's support, the Transit Benefit Program Act didn't become law, but the Federal Employees Clean Air Incentives Act did. It did not expand the transit benefit to include bike commuters, something that wouldn't happen until 2007, but it did allow federal employers to create programs to encourage commute means other than single-occupancy vehicles including allowing agencies to furnish space, facilities and services to bicyclists. It also made the Mikulski Amendment permanent (in 2000, a Clinton Executive Order would require all agencies to offer transit benefits, not just make them optional).