I recently attended the 2011 Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) conference, along with approximately 350 fellow North American colleagues in the Transportation Demand Management (TDM) field. For the uninitiated, TDM, also known as "Mobility Management," is a general term for various strategies that make more efficient use of our transportation systems. (You can learn more about TDM at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute's web site.)
ACT supports professionals working in myriad ways to reduce traffic congestion, conserve energy, and improve air quality— for instance by helping employers set up and analyze the rewards of commuter benefits programs, such as the Commute Options pilot program I'm leading outreach for in northeastern Illinois.
Several "hot topics in TDM" discussed at the ACT conference will influence my outreach efforts in the coming months:
Promote TDM as a no-cost win for employers. More than one speaker discussed the idea of promoting TDM programs to prospective participants as a no-cost benefit. The Commute Options pilot program is a good example of this: We will meet with an employer, survey their employees' commute habits, analyze the data, and make recommendations for possible commute or employer-assisted housing programs—all at no cost to that employer. What other benefit can make that claim?
Leverage the power of the “green" message. A recurring theme at this year’s ACT conference was the connection between TDM concepts and sustainability. This sparked a related conversation about outreach strategies. Once upon a time, many companies had a dedicated Employee Transportation Coordinator on site to help employees with commutes. That is no longer the case, and the Human Resources Department in many cases now serves as the first point of contact for an organization promoting TDM to a prospective participant employer.
But with an increased focus on the environment (and I've experienced this in my outreach efforts for Commute Options), an organization’s Sustainability Coordinator is another (perhaps even more) likely champion for a workplace to add or enhance TDM programs. If a company wants to reduce its carbon footprint or obtain LEED certification, the Sustainability Coordinator can be an effective champion in advancing TDM programs, which can accomplish these and other green goals.
Of course, measuring program performance—whether to determine a company’s carbon footprint or to measure how many pollutants have been reduced by implementing a program—is critical to successful corporate sustainability programs. Through Commute Options, we are measuring environmental benefits, as an overaching goal of the program is to help achieve the Chicago Climate Action Plan's goal of reducing the number of cars on the roads by 19,000. Clearly, the Sustainability Coordinator at a company will appreciate the impact a measurable TDM program can have on making their workplace more sustainable.
Protect the future of pretax commuting benefits: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Section 132 currently allows employees to set aside up to $230 each month before taxes for public transit or vanpool commuting costs. A participating employer also receives tax benefits in the form of reduced FICA taxes. While many employers offer pretax benefits for their employees, many more don't, and there is still great opportunity to grow this program.
Yet the current $230 monthly deduction for public transit and vanpools expires on Dec. 31, 2011. It is not clear at this time if that dollar amount will be extended in 2012, revert back to the old limit of $120, change to another dollar amount, or be eliminated due to the current budget situation.
On a related note, the SAFETEA-Lu and gasoline taxes used to fund transportation projects expire on Sept. 30, 2011. President Obama joined transportation official in the Rose Garden of the White House on Aug. 31 to call on Congress to pass a short term extension of SAFETEA-Lu., as well as a long term transportation authorization bill.
As members of Transportation for America Illinois, MPC and several partners in the Commute Options program will be monitoring these issues closely during the last quarter of 2011, and advocating for a comprehensive transportation program as well as funding to support current levels of commuter benefits. Employers who wish to add their voice to these advocacy efforts—and anyone who wants to learn more about the Commute Options program—may contact me at email@example.com or 312-863-6040.