SF commuter-benefit program offenders can expect crackdown 

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  • mike koozmin/2011 s.f. examiner file photo
  • A city program requires pretax transit subsidies for employees of large businesses.

Thousands of large businesses in San Francisco are about to find out whether they are in violation of a commuter-benefit law and could face hundreds of dollars in fines.

Staff from the Department of the Environment is working to bring more of the estimated 6,200 businesses in compliance with the local law. As of this spring, 1,800 businesses reported being in compliance. But those who are not can expect to receive warning notices in the mail shortly.

If they do not comply, they could receive fines of up to $500.

But regardless of the noncompliance, the program has helped reduce carbon emissions by as much as 286,547 metric tons annually, according to the Commission on the Environment. And its success has made it a model for other Bay Area locales.

In 2009, San Francisco adopted a commuter-benefit program that required employers with 20 or more workers nationwide to offer one of three options, with the most popular being use of pretax wages for public transit.

Other ways for businesses to comply is through a transit or van pool subsidy of $75 per month, or offering a shuttle service.

Deborah Raphael, director of the Department of the Environment, praised San Francisco's program.

"If we are ever going to reduce greenhouse gases, we are going to have to get people out their cars," she said. "And in order to get people out of their cars, it's going to take some hammers, it's going to take some carrots."

But Congress has not been very generous with the pretax benefit. While it had voted in 2013 to boost it from $125 a month to $245, it has dropped it to $130 a month this year.

The Department of the Environment is also working to ensure that no confusion arises as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission roll out on Sept. 30 a mandated pilot program for Bay Area employers with 50 or more workers locally. It's expected to impact 10,000 employers and 25,000 office locations.

San Francisco businesses meeting the regional mandate criteria will have to start reporting to the regional agencies. It's estimated that about 1,100 businesses will be affected. Meanwhile, those with workforces ranging from 20 to 49 will continue to report to the Department of the Environment.

Those businesses enrolled in the San Francisco program had 90,723 employees, a 27 percent participation rate, taking advantage of the pretax commuter benefit. Using San Francisco County Transportation Authority data for average commute distances, that participation reduced carbon emissions by 286,557 metric tons annually, according to Robert Hayden, the Department of the Environment's clean transportation program manager.

The TA and MTC are projecting similar success, with their analysis showing a possible 7 percent increase in transit ridership next year among workers whose employers are impacted by the mandate.

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