Firms enticed to chip in on workers' transit costs

June 25, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Baltimore-area employers facing a mandate to make their workers' commuting habits more environmentally friendly are being offered a solution that could also boost the city's declining bus and subway ridership.

At least that's the hope of Mass Transit Administration officials who are scheduled to unveil their new transit subsidy program called TransitPlus at a breakfast meeting with employers this morning at Metro's Charles Center station.

TransitPlus is a voucher system that allows businesses to pay for a portion or all of their employees' transit fares.

The vouchers, available in increments of $10, can be purchased by employers at a 3.6 percent discount and then given or sold to their workers beginning next month.

Unlike a previous program that encouraged bosses to provide monthly bus passes to workers, TransitPlus offers greater flexibility, MTA officials said.

The vouchers can be redeemed for any kind of transit pass -- monthly or weekly or even daily tokens for occasional riders -- and they can be applied to all forms of transit: Metro, bus, light rail, suburban bus lines, and Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains.

The program is being announced on the same day another state agency, the Department of the Environment, is publishing regulations that require large employers to reduce the number of employees who drive alone to work.

By 1996, both government and businesses with more than 100 employees in Baltimore and six surrounding counties must increase the number of workers who car pool, van pool, take mass transit, or some other alternative to driving solo, or else face stiff fines.

"There's going to be a significant demand placed on the region to comply with the federal Clean Air Act," said MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. "It's up to others to enforce the law. We're in the solution business."

Many employers are unaware that the Internal Revenue Service allows businesses to subsidize an employee's transit costs at up to $60 per month with no tax liability to the employee, Mr. Agro said.

The MTA's Metro and bus systems have been gradually losing riders over the past three years. Most recently, the drop-off caused the agency to cut back on some bus routes and raise the basic fare by 15 cents in January.

"We've been reducing service in areas where ridership is dropping. Then as a result of the reductions, we've lost more ridership," said Mr. Agro. "It's a situation we have to turn around."

MTA officials claim the new commuting regulations give the agency a chance to better market their product. Employees of the MTA's ride-sharing program, which helps match people for car pools, will be calling businesses to tout TransitPlus.

One company that probably won't have to be sold on the program is Crown Central Petroleum, which already subsidizes about 100 bus passes a month for its 300 employees at the downtown headquarters.

"[TransitPlus] is going to be a useful tool for us in bringing us in compliance," said James L. Weaver, the company's human resources manager.

"It reduces some of the administrative burden on us, although it may be a little less convenient for employees who have to make their own arrangements for bus passes," Mr. Weaver said.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, operator of Metrobus and Metrorail, has a similar discount voucher program. Metrochek looks like a regular Metrorail fare card and can be purchased with a face value of up to $30 by employers.

It can be used as a fare card, or exchanged for a credit toward monthly passes on Metrobus, MARC, Virginia Railway Express, or any qualified commuter bus or van pool.

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