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Cutting Red Tape to Promote the Transit Advantage

November 17, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Across America, budget-conscious governments are cutting public workers' pensions and bargaining rights to save taxpayers' money. Why then do some state and federal agencies insist on spending more when it comes to managing how those employees get to work?

Jodie Zurn wondered the same thing when federal officials derailed a transit incentive program for the staff of 215 at her U.S. Department of Agriculture office in downtown Minneapolis and ordered it replaced with one that cost $97,000 a year more —making it less convenient for the program managers and commuters as well.

"It didn't make sense," she said. "I started pounding on doors."

For her efforts, which resulted in a money- and hassle-saving reversal of policy last month, Zurn received a Change Agent award at Metro Transit's annual Commuter Choice luncheon last week in St. Paul. The switch not only cut USDA's costs and paperwork, it boosted the number of transit riders among the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service staff in Minneapolis to 180, 84 percent of the workforce.

The change replaced employer-paid vouchers for regular transit fares, which cost upwards of $113 a month per person, with $76 monthly Metropass cards good for unlimited discounted rides on Metro Transit buses and trains as well as suburban routes. The new system also relieved employees of having to exchange vouchers for Go-To fare cards at Metro Transit retail outlets.

"Once you get the program started, it pretty much runs itself," said Bill Andre of Commuter Connection, the 20-year-old public-private partnership that has helped spur transit commuting into downtown Minneapolis to 40 percent of the total. That's important, he added, because "we don't have the parking infrastructure for everyone to drive to work here."

Metropass, available through employers with at least 10 transit commuters, has 254 participating organizations in the Twin Cities area representing more than 33,000 transit riders. Nearly 90 percent of Metropass workplaces are private businesses or institutions, some of which subsidize the passes with savings from less employee parking and tax breaks for promoting transit.

Government participants include Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and about 20 state and federal agencies. Even though it's established policy around here to promote transit ridership that eases highway congestion and pollution, that's just a fraction of the local public sector.

Government agencies in transit-poor locations may not be able to recruit enough riders to sign up. Those in places well-served by transit — including the Minnesota Department of Transportation — don't have that excuse. Meanwhile, state government subsidizes solo driving to work with thousands of spaces of cut-rate employee parking around downtown St. Paul, as noted by Steven Dornfeld in a recent MinnPost blog.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers free parking for all 3,500 of its employees at the Minneapolis medical center and Fort Snelling office building near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Even though the Hiawatha light rail line is practically at the doorstep, few VA employees commute by transit. Still, if the VA can get the federal approval it's seeking to join Metropass, its cost for employee transit incentives is estimated to drop by $200,000 a year.

Red-tape warrior Zurn has been contacted by other federal agencies, including the Federal Drug Administration and the FBI, for guidance on how to get official clearance for Metropass.With 23,000 federal employees in the Twin Cities area, the savings for taxpayers could approach $2 million, she said.

"We're now going to the state level," she said. "So many people in government told me to just let it go, but now this thing is just exploding. How could anyone not think this is a good idea?"

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