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PERKS FOR COMMUTERS: New law requires Bay Area companies to offer incentives to workers who use public transit, car pooling services

Many Bay Area commuters will soon have an incentive to get out of their cars and try public transit or ride-sharing services to get to work.

A new state law requires Bay Area companies with 50 or more employees to offer commuter benefits to workers, a perk that some companies have provided on their own for years.

The law, which may be the first of its kind in the nation, compels both private industry and public employers, with the threat of penalties, to help ease traffic and reduce greenhouse gases.

It utilizes tax breaks the Internal Revenue Service provides for employers that offer commuter benefits.

"This program uses the provision in the federal tax code to encourage employers and employees to use methods of commuting other than single-occupancy vehicles," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

The MTC, which has jurisdiction over nine Bay Area counties including Sonoma County, is implementing the commuter benefit program.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District will enforce the law. Companies that don't offer commuter benefits by Sept. 30 could face monetary penalties, the district said.

The law expires after 2016, at which time the program will be re-evaluated, MTC officials said.

San Francisco, Richmond and Berkeley have city ordinances requiring companies to offer commuter benefits. The state law was modeled on those ordinances.

To comply with the law, companies can choose one of four options:

* Companies can allow employees to exclude up to $130 of their transit or van pooling expenses each month from taxable income. This option is the least financially onerous on employers and could even save businesses money in payroll tax, the MTC said.

* Employers could provide a tax-free subsidy of up to $75 per month to cover transit costs. In this option, companies would likely give employees transit vouchers or something similar, such as a pre-paid Clipper travel card. This benefit could help companies recruit and retain employees, the MTC said.

* A business or group of businesses could provide a free or low-cost bus or shuttle for employees. Some tech companies, such as Google, provide buses for employees who live in San Francisco and work in Silicon Valley.

* A company could propose a package of different benefits that encourages alternative commuting. Some options include installing secure bike parking, showers and lockers and offering a subsidy for commuters who bike to work, implementing telecommuting, providing preferred parking for car poolers and promoting car pooling programs such as Carma.

In Sonoma County, about 600 employers are now required to offer the benefits to 70,000 employees, which observers say could help nudge commuters into changing their behavior.

"I think it's great," said Amy McCrary, project coordinator at the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign, which operates the Carma Carpooling program in Sonoma County. "It's that push that helps to get more employees to use alternative commute modes."

Some Sonoma County businesses already offer commuter benefits and may be in compliance with the law.

At Medtronic, which has more than 800 workers in Santa Rosa, the company subsidizes a vansharing service for employees who live in San Francisco and Marin, said spokesman Joe McGrath. The van pool fleet consists of six 12-passenger vans equipped with

wireless hotspots that provide instant connectivity to the Medtronic network, he said, and the program eliminates more than 31,000 individual commuter trips over the course of a year.

Medtronic also uses WageWorks, a benefit administration firm, to offer employees a pre-tax commuter expense deduction from their paychecks.

Employees at Agilent Technologies' Fountaingrove campus have a menu of alternative commuter options. Spokesman Jeff Weber said the commute package may comply with the law's fourth option, designed for companies that are not easily accessible to public transit.

Agilent offers preferred parking for car poolers and low-emission vehicles, free electric vehicle charging, a guaranteed ride home program and promotes Carma Carpooling and biking to work, Weber said.

"Our feeling all along has been to do the right thing for the community and the environment," he said. "That's been the motivation from our standpoint."

You can reach Staff Writer

Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt. brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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