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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New law gives cash incentives to bicycle commuters

From an article by Chris Hubbuch in the La Crosse Tribune:

With his yellow rain slicker, reflective vest and helmet-mounted headlight, it’s hard to miss Kurt Oettel as he pedals to work.

“There’s no doubt I’m a bike commuter,” he said. “I look like a geek.”

Oettel, 44, rides about 21/2 miles each way from his home on 24th Street to Gundersen Lutheran, where he works as an oncologist.

He rarely misses a day.

“I took off those three days when there was a 35 below wind chill,” he admitted.

For Oettel, who with his wife has three kids, one car and 11 bicycles, biking to work started as a necessity but continues out of a passion for biking and for conserving energy.

A new law that took effect Jan. 1 provides a monetary benefit for commuters like him and an incentive for others to get on their bikes.

According to the law, commuters can collect $20 a month for bike-related expenses; employers can deduct the expense from their taxes.

The credit, which extends benefits already available to parking and public transit users, was included in last fall’s controversial $700 billion financial industry bailout.

Ironically, the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, voted against it. The Oregon Democrat, who wears a bicycle lapel pin and spent years pushing for the credit, opposed the rescue bill, calling it too expensive and ineffective.

Exactly how the law will be applied — how often do you have to ride to work to be a bicycle commuter? — isn’t clear. The IRS has not issued specific guidance on the rule, said spokesman Christopher Miller.

“A lot of things are not completely explained yet,” said Meghan Cahill, communications director for the League of American Bicyclists, which applauds the law.

Employees will have to produce receipts to document they spent money — on a bike, accessories or repairs — said Mary Jo Werner, a CPA with Wipfli LLP in La Crosse.

It’s not clear from the law whether it’s mandatory for employers to offer the benefit.

“I don’t know why an employer wouldn’t want to do it,” Werner said. “You’re giving an employee a benefit and it doesn’t cost anything. Plus it kind of breeds good will.”

Carl Johnson, owner of Smith Cycling and Fitness, hasn’t figured out how it will work but plans on offering the credit. He has about 10 employees who could qualify as bike commuters.

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