Business groups join push for mass transit tax credit; Environmentalists partners in effort


A bill aimed at nudging people out of their cars and onto mass transit was bolstered in Annapolis yesterday by a rare coalition of environmentalists and business groups.

"When you see all these people in the same room, on the same side of an issue, you know you're looking at a unique proposal," said Michael Replogle, an Environmental Defense Fund official who arranged a press conference in support of the bill.

The measure, which had its first airing in a Senate committee yesterday, would offer a tax credit to companies that help pay for their workers' transportation -- providing those workers ride buses or trains or join car pools.

The bill's price tag -- estimated at over $1 million a year beginning in 2001 -- raised some eyebrows on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. But members hailed its motive: combating pollution and daily traffic headaches.

"We have to do something to make it attractive for people to get out of their automobiles," said Sen. Ida D. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat and chief sponsor of the measure. "That's not an easy task, but it's something that could save the state money, improve our air quality and cut down on the miserable amounts of congestion."

Under Ruben's bill, the state would provide a tax credit of up to 50 percent of a business' cost to reimburse employee expenses for mass transit. It would limit the amount a company could recover to $30 per employee per month.

For instance, if a business bought a $60 monthly bus pass for a worker, it could receive a $30 state income tax credit. The bill also would require businesses to pay for a taxi or other service should a participating employee need to leave work for an emergency, such as a sick child.

The idea has been tried in several other states, including California, Washington, Delaware and New Jersey. Legislative analysts estimate that, should the legislation pass in Maryland, it would be used by roughly 6,000 workers.

"It's a worthy idea," said Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "We're 100 percent behind it."

As a parade of supporters from both business and environmental circles appeared before the committee, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the chairwoman, noted that "nobody here has mentioned the cost."

Ruben said some of the lost tax revenue would be pumped back in to public coffers in the fares paid to ride public buses and trains. Other supporters insisted that any cost would be worth a reduction in smog and traffic.

"There's no one silver bullet that's going to reduce smog and traffic," said Del. Paul Carlson, a Montgomery Democrat who is sponsoring the bill in the House. "But anything we can do to get some of our folks out of their vehicles is a great first step."

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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