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News you can use for all urban dwellers

Details on a beefed-up commuter tax deduction and how to stay clean in the city.

Lodged in the 2009 stimulus law was a provision allowing you to put away as much as $230 a month of your pretax salary for transit expenses and/or for parking. Beginning in 2012, however, Congress raised the parking benefit to $240 a month and lowered the transit benefit to $125.
MinnPost photo by Raoul Benavides

So, for a change, here’s some news you can use.

Remember that fiscal cliff deal? The one that extended those Bush-era tax cuts?  I know, it seems like a million years ago. But you should know that, along with sparing you a tax increase, assuming your income isn’t in nosebleed territory, the law boosted a benefit for commuters who take transit to work.

Here’s the background. Lodged in the 2009 stimulus law (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) was a provision allowing you to put away as much as $230 a month of your pretax salary for transit expenses (bus, train, ferry, van pool, trolley, stagecoach, whatever) and/or for parking. (This all presumed that your employer participated in the program.) Beginning in 2012, however, Congress raised the parking benefit to $240 a month and lowered the transit benefit to $125.

That change cost straphangers a busload of dough. A driver withholding the entire $240 would be able to set aside up to $2,880 annually. If s/he were in the 36 percent bracket for both federal and Minnesota taxes, the deduction would come to $1,037. But a lowly rail or bus commuter would see a deduction of only $540, nearly $500 less.

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Why Congress chose to penalize transit commuters is somewhat of a mystery. Possibly, there was some red state sentiment that city folk who use transit are somehow anti-car and thus “hate Amurrica.” It seemed like a downright stupid thing to do when the nation is supposed to be working to reduce dependence on foreign oil, much of which is used by cars. In any case, a howl of rage went up from commuter groups, transit advocates and unions. Democratic and Republican senators from eastern states, where more people depend on mass transit, stuck the higher deduction into MAP-21, last year’s transportation legislation, but the measure got tossed in the House. 

Now, the deductions are bigger and better, $245 for both transit riders and drivers. Better yet, they are retroactive to the beginning of last year. Figuring out the math for all that will no doubt be an administrative headache, but, of course, that’s what computers are for.

Congress also added another important goodie: a $20 pretax benefit for bicycle commuters for “reasonable expenses.” They would include a bike purchase, improvements, repairs and storage. The law allows commuters to use all the deductions; so those who, say, ride a bicycle to a train could qualify for both the $20 and the $245 deductions. Note, however, that the deductions are limited by the amount you actually spend up to the maximums. 

According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, 2.7 million employers offer the deductions. And why not? They enjoy savings too. Employers can either give workers the $245 a month outright and take a deduction. Or they can allow the employee to set aside that much. The amount of the set aside reduces your taxable income and thus their portion of your Social Security and Medicare taxes. So, if your employer doesn’t yet provide the benefit, you might be able to convince him that it’s in his interest to do so. You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about this at the website of the National Center for Transportation Research.

Keeping city hands clean

I have always assumed that those outdoor portable potties that you find around the lakes, in parks and at special events like rock concerts are really germy. Whenever I have to use one, I slather every exposed part of my body with hand sanitizer to fend off the microbes. (No disrespect intended to Biff’s, Inc., the Shakopee company that provides many of the outhouses. They do a pretty good job, considering what they’re dealing with. In fact, I’ve been hoping that they would land the naming rights to the new Vikings stadium.)

But now comes a report from Kimberly-Clark Professional, a workplace safety outfit that’s part of the Kleenex-Kotex-Huggies empire. It contends that outdoor lavs are not the only place where you can pick up bugs. With a flu epidemic raging across the nation and 60 deaths in Minnesota alone, that’s pretty concerning, especially this year.

The most dangerous spots: gas pump and mail box handles. 

Kimberly-Clark sent trained hygienists to high-traffic locations in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia, cities of reputed germiness, I guess. Using some kind of gizmometer, they swabbed various objects to measure levels of ATP or adenosine triphosphate, whose presence indicates contamination by animal, vegetable, bacteria and mold cells. Supposedly an ATP count of 300 or more means the surface has a high level of contamination and thus a high risk of illness transmission. (Having myself survived two years of the Peace Corps in rural Guatemala — not the most sanitary of places — I am not so wary of merely touching dirty stuff. To catch a disease, I would think that you have to put your contaminated fingers in your mouth or rub them all over the rim of your coffee cup and then lick it.) Anyway, the hygienists swabbed a total of 350 places. Here’s how the study shook out:

Surface% with an ATP count over 300
Gas pump handles71
Mailbox handles68
Escalator rails43
Parking meters or kiosks40
Crosswalk buttons35
Vending machine buttons35

Kimberly-Clark didn’t test portable potties; so I will continue to bathe in Purell after using one. But overall, I would say the takeaway here is the same as I got from my kindergarten teacher back at John Hay School: keep your hands to yourself. Failing that, wear gloves.