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Transit users whose employers provide pre-tax benefit programs stand to pay less taxes in 2012 and 2013. Photo by Erin Nekervis. 

January 1st always comes with new laws. This January 1st was a little different than most in that the United States was closing in on the “fiscal cliff”. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 is expected to be signed into law by President Obama and includes provisions that raise taxes on a majority of Americans, and prolongs extended unemployment benefits, among other changes to the tax code. A major change, fought over for years by sustainable transportation advocates, is the coming yearlong parity of the transit commuter benefit with the parking benefit. These two programs deduct the cost of a monthly transit or parking pass before calculating taxes owed (“pre-tax benefit”).

The American Public Transportation Association released a statement:

For 2013, there is no longer a financial bias in the federal tax code against public transit use. This has always been an issue of fairness, and public transit advocates are pleased that the federal tax code will again provide transit riders with the same tax benefits according to those who drive to work.

The change will be retroactive to January 1, 2012, so workers whose employers implement this program will be able to receive tax benefits for any passes they purchased through the program last year. Unfortunately, the benefit expires December 31, 2013. This isn’t the first time that the transit commuter benefit will expire while the parking benefit remains. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA 2009, also known as the “stimulus”) raised the transit commuter benefit from $120 to $230 per month, but that expired on December 31, 2011. The parking benefit remained at $230 per month.

The current surface transportation bill, MAP-21, signed into law on July 6, 2012, raised the transit commuter benefit a paltry $5 to $125 while raising the parking benefit to $240. The transit commuter benefit is now $240. The retroactive provision will benefit Metra riders who purchased passes that were greater than $125 each month in 2012, which included anyone who traveled between zones A (downtown) and E through M*.

The pre-tax benefit can only be distributed by employers. Interested employers can visit the Regional Transportation Authority’s website Less Taxing Commute to learn how to implement the program in their workplace.

The transit commuter benefit is a federal law. Illinois has a variety of its own new laws, listed below.

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Two new laws in Illinois took effect two days ago and limit cellphone use. See item 3 below. Photo by Andrew Ciscel. 

New Illinois laws

Impaired driving

Several new rules regarding Driving while Under the Influence (DUI) were made (summaries are taken from the Illinois Senate Democrats website).

1. Public act 097-0984, HB 4863

“Allows a driver’s vehicle to be seized and forfeited if the driver’s license has been suspended or revoked in another state for a DUI, leaving the scene of an accident resulting in injury or death, reckless homicide or statutory summary suspension (previously the law provided for seizure and forfeiture only for driving on a license that had been suspended or revoked in Illinois)”.

2. Public act 097-1050, HB5021

“Provides that any funds received by the State Police from DUI convictions shall be used for the purchase of law enforcement equipment that will assist in the prevention of alcohol-related criminal violence”. It’s not just equipment, though: the law allows for the revenue to be used to pay salaries and for DUI training.

A complementary act was also passed: “Creates state funds into which fines will be deposited for DUI, reckless driving or speeding in excess of 31 MPH”, public act 097-0931 (HB 4577).

3. Two laws regarding cellphone use

Public act 097-0830, SB2488

“Expands the ban for cell phone use in construction zones to include areas without reduced speed”.

Public act 097-0829, HB5101

“Prohibits drivers of commercial vehicles from texting or using hand-held mobile phones while driving”.

Driver’s education

4. Public act 097-1025, SB 3367

“Makes a variety of changes relating to drivers’ education”. I was hoping the changes would have something to do with increasing and broadening education, on the path towards mobility education. But I wasn’t surprised this law isn’t about that. It’s about changing rules on how students who don’t attend public school pay for driver education at a public school. It also provides new regulations regarding testing and the safety features of a vehicles used in driver education at public high schools.

The law provides something else new: “The Secretary, in consultation with the State Board of Education, shall adopt course content standards for driver education for those persons under the age of 18 years, which shall include the operation and equipment of motor vehicles.”

I didn’t know the Secretary of State and the State Board of Education were not in control of driver education curriculum. A deadline for this rule wasn’t provided.

Public planning

5. Public act 097-0827, HB4687

“Requires public bodies to provide notice and agendas to the public at least 48 hours prior to a meeting; specifies that such agendas must include the general subject matter of any proposed resolutions or ordinances on the agendas”. Specifically, any public body that is required to publish an agenda – which is basically any committee or board you can imagine, and defined in the same statute – must post an agenda for 48 hours continuously prior to the meeting and that this agenda describes any items that will have “final action” taken.

An example: the Chicago City Council zoning committee is going to vote on whether to remove a Pedestrian Street designation at its next regular meeting (which hasn’t been scheduled for January yet). Since this is a “final action”, the meeting’s agenda must list this vote and be posted (the committee’s website suffices) for 48 hours prior to the meeting start.

Streets

6. Public act 097-1023, SB 3336

“Allows inline skaters to travel with traffic on public roads as long as they meet certain conditions”. For years it seemed that state statutes neither prohibited inline skating (and skateboarding) nor allowed it on public roads or sidewalks. This law defines “inline speed skates” and classifies a wearer of these as a pedestrian. The law applies to all cities that are not Chicago (by applying a population threshold) and says that people 18 years and older can skate on streets with a posted speed limit of 45 MPH or lower from sunrise to sunset.

7. Public act 097-0763, SB 3409

“Allows drivers involved in accidents to move their vehicles out of the way if no one was injured and the vehicles are still functional; does not eliminate the requirement to exchange information and/or contact the authorities”. This summary explains the law sufficiently.

Transit

8. Public act 097-1116, SB 2937

“Creates the Northwest Metra Commuter Rail District in McHenry County”. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has slightly more information:

As a municipal corporation, the District would have eminent domain powers and the ability to levy property taxes.  A property tax would have to be approved by a majority of voters, and the property tax rate would not exceed 0.25 percent of assessed value.  If signed by the Governor, SB 2937 would join the Southeast Commuter Rail Transit District as the region’s second new transit district created in the past year.

McHenry county has 7 Metra stations on two branches of the UP-Northwest line. There are plans to extend the McHenry Branch – the shorter of the two – to Johnsburg, adding 3 stations. However, there hasn’t been progress on this plan in years. The most recent mention of it was in this 2010 article. I reached out to Metra to get the latest:

Metra is currently completing an Environmental Assessment study for the UP-Northwest project, but the Federal Transit Administration has not approved the project’s financial plan, so it cannot proceed into preliminary engineering until that is satisfied.  This project, along with others, is in the fiscally constrained list of the CMAPGO TO 2040 Regional Plan, and is one of the potential long term projects under Metra’s ongoing strategic plan.

The Metra spokesperson also commented on the legislation, saying, “Metra has not taken an official position on this transit district, but many community leaders feel this will help to organize the support for proposed projects such as the extension of the Milwaukee District West Line to Huntley and Marengo and the upgrade of the UP-Northwest Line including the extension of that line to Johnsburg.” The district’s formation could also help obtain funding for the projects.

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  • Lisa Curcio

    I read something somewhere about a bicycle benefit, too. When I learned of it I checked with my employer–which has the parking and transit benefits available–and they did not know anything about it. Sorry that I have forgotten where the information on the bicycle benefit is located.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      There is a pre-tax bicycle benefit, but it works quite differently than the transit commuter or parking commuter benefit. The League of American Bicyclists has more information on its website: http://www.bikeleague.org/news/100708faq.php

  • http://transitized.com/ Shaun Jacobsen

    How long, roughly, do the environmental assessment studies take? I remember a Metra Connects website from years ago outlining the UP-NW extension. It also described the Metra STAR project. This was back in high school when I lived nearer to that area. Regardless the extension would still only serve rush periods right? As it is, the one-station branch of the UP-NW line is only served during the weekday rush.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Short answer: It takes as long as needed. Here’s the page you’re referring to.

      Metra could be doing the EA themselves of hiring a firm to do it. I don’t imagine the priority is very high.