Editorial: Public-transit plan is a winner

The Examiner generally opposes City Hall’s enthusiasm for burdening San Francisco’s struggling smaller business with extra expenses — paid sick leave, health care, higher minimum wage — that competitors in neighboring towns are not forced to pay.

But even the Chamber of Commerce supports the Board of Supervisors’ latest unanimous mandate, which might well prove to be a genuine win-win for all.

By the end of the year, every San Francisco business with at least 20 employees will be required to offer its personnel one of three transit benefits.

Supervisors say the best-case option will actually save business owners money by lowering their payroll-tax obligations 9 percent without actually adding any out-of-pocket expenses.

Also gaining will be employees, who can save as much as 40 percent on their monthly transit costs; commuting motorists, who will face less traffic congestion; transit agencies that get additional rider fares; and the public, which will be breathing cleaner air as greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced.

Half of San Francisco’s air pollution comes from vehicle emissions, so that enticing more solo-driving commuters onto public transit would be a plus for both public health and the environment.

The new law’s two secondary choices — providing free shuttle service or paying for employees’ transit passes — would cause employers to spend money that could later be deducted as business expenses. But the option expected to be most widely used allows businesses to fulfill their legal obligation by simply participating in a federal program that lets workers deduct as much as $115 of their pretax wages to purchase discounted monthly transit passes.

Those pretax commuter checkoffs would be diverted as part of the payroll-deduction bookkeeping. So the only business expense would be minor costs of setting up and administering an additional accounting category, which would be reimbursed by savings on a smaller taxable payroll. And employees who sign up for the voluntary deductions could then be paying just $27 per month for a $45 monthly Muni Fast Pass.

At least 40,000 employees in San Francisco are already using the federal pretax commuter benefits. With most businesses in The City now being required to offer these benefits, employee participation could increase public-transit ridership by hundreds of thousands.

It is a pleasant change to see The City do something to advance its transit-first policy by making buses or trains a better commute alternative, instead of just piling another penalty on top of all the other barriers discouraging the use of private automobiles on our streets.

And do we even need to mention the unsurprising news that San Francisco is, of course, America’s first city to make employee public-transit incentives a civic mandate?

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