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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 25, 2007 5:42 AM. The previous post in this blog was Get rid of political "robocalls". The next post in this blog is Couplet may be declared illegal. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Earl the Pearl: "Green" the tax code

My congressman, Earl Blumenauer, is perfect for his job. He represents Portland, Oregon quite well. Yesterday he testified in front of a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is in charge of the federal tax laws, about the relationship of the tax system to the ecosystem. He offered a couple of ideas: a systematic review of the tax laws to see how they impact the environment, and tax incentives to reward bicycle commuters (of which he is one).

Now, I'm highly skeptical when politicians, corporations, and mainstream media types start coming on with whole "green" and "sustainable" thing. Some of us have been thinking about, and even working on, ecology issues most of our adult lives, and the mad rush by everybody and his brother to make hay out of them is a little off-putting. When the electric company sends me a form that says, "We'll be green if you pay us more every month," I throw it right into... well, the recycling bin.

But I think Earl's ideas are good ones. Oil cronies like Bush and Cheney have made a mint off the tax code (just as the timber and mining boys have traditionally done), and they could care less what kind of mess they leave behind after they've made their money. It's about time somebody tried to assess how badly the tax laws are exacerbating the environmental problems created by the tax-favored industries. And if we're going to let employers buy spendy parking places for the executives tax-free, we ought to extend similar tax giveaways to bosses who want to help bike commuters with their expenses.

Anyhow, here's part of his testimony:

An action that could help direct our efforts to make the tax code as carbon friendly as possible would be to commission a carbon audit of the tax code. I am currently drafting legislation which would have the National Academy of Sciences convene a panel of experts to look at the tax code and identify activities that impact our carbon emissions. In addition to providing us with important information on how to "green the tax code," this exercise could also supply us with ideas on how to raise revenue....

It is vital that any changes to the tax code increase incentives for producing energy in a clean, renewable manner. I strongly support the renewable production tax credit (PTC), which has made a huge difference to the development of renewable energy, especially wind, in my state and around the country....

I am pleased to be a co-sponsor of Rep. Earl Pomeroy's legislation to extend the production tax credit for five years. In fact, I would support a longer-term extension to give even more certainty to the industry. As has been discussed in this Committee, the short-term extensions of the credit in the past have created a boom-and-bust cycle that is not conducive to the development of capital intensive projects like wind farms and geothermal plants. I understand this is an expensive endeavor, and pledge to help the Committee to look for additional revenue raisers in the energy realm that could offset the additional cost...

Last month, Rep. Tom Cole and I introduced H.R. 1772, the Rural Wind Energy Development Act. This legislation would provide an investment tax credit of $ 1500 per 1/2 kilowatt of capacity for small wind systems, which could be carried over for a customer unable to take advantage of the entire credit within a one-year period. The bill also calls for a 3-year accelerated depreciation for small wind systems.

Small wind systems are electric generators that produce 100 kilowatts or less of energy -- but the wind energy industry estimates that this credit will be mostly used for turbines between 2 and 10 kW in size. The tax credit would be available to offset the high up-front costs of owning a small wind turbine for homeowners, farmers, and small businesses. It would allow these individuals to generate their own power, independent from the electric grid. They would be able to cut their energy bills and, at times, put power back into the grid.

There is an existing investment tax credit available to homeowners who install small solar systems, which has been very successful in increasing the number of solar panels installed. This bill would simply expand that to include wind....

Another piece of legislation I would like to highlight is H.R. 1498, which would address not the production of energy but the use of oil. The "Bike Commuter Act" would extend the transportation fringe benefit to bike commuters. It would reward commuters who burn calories instead of gas.

Currently, employers may offer a transportation fringe benefit to their employees for certain costs incurred while commuting to work. Employees who take advantage of this benefit may receive a tax-exempt benefit of up to $ 215/month for drivers participating in qualified parking plans or $ 110/month for those who use transit or vanpooling. Current law also allows the option of taking cash compensation. My legislation aims to balance the incentive structure by extending the transportation fringe benefit to include bicycling.

With over 50 percent of the population commuting 5 miles or less to work, incentives for bicycle commuting have great potential to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips. A Rodale Press survey recently found that Americans want to have the opportunity to bike to work instead of drive, with 40% of those surveyed indicating they would commute by bike if safe facilities were available. I believe this is the type of message that Congress should be sending to our communities through the tax code: that we support efforts to reduce energy consumption, ease traffic congestion, and encourage healthy activities as part of our daily routines....

I rag on the city politicians when they go all "green" on us, because it's really not part of their job descriptions. But for a member of Congress, it decidedly is, and I agree with Blumenauer that the tax system has an impact that ought to be optimized.

Comments (21)

All this talk about 'carbon' someone really needs to inform them that the major component of our 'air pollution' is water vapor and good luck stopping that.

Second, while I applaud any and all efforts to get better gas mileage and/or find different ways to run our cars, or even have folks walk and bike, cash incentives to bike? Isn't this a bit like paying your kid for good grades? Also, do we have the bike numbers (that the city of Portland loves to toss around) about how many bikers we had during the really cold, nasty months of Dec, Jan and Feb? I am often in places where I can and do watch. When the rains came (and came and came), when the temperature dropped to the 30's - the number of bikes dropped too.

I dunno, I think all this green stuff is going about it the wrong way and in many cases (PGE - we can be green) is just another way to part the consumer from his dollar.

Jack - I disagree with your statement that for the local pols, "green is really not part of their job description". These guys are in charge of roads, sewers, water and garbage. Those systems all have a huge impact on the environment. I am glad that COP has embraced sustainability as part of their job descriptions.

Id like to see how they prove people are riding bikes to work on a tax form. Sounds like a perfect way to scam the feds. How about transit riders? Does Earl have any thoughts about some tax breaks for those who pay for transit instead of driving to work? The $75 per month I pay for my bus pass is more than the insurance and fuel bill for my car combined. Its the $170/mo parking downtown that keeps me from driving.


Sorry, I didnt read all of the testimony. Its interesting that here are already things in place for those using transit. My boss said they couldnt do anything when I asked.

EMT:

The point is that there are already cash incentives to drive. If a tax benefit for bicycle commuters is like paying a kid for good grades, then the current incentive is like paying a kid to spend the day in the playground smoking cigarettes. If we're already incentivizing driving, then the least we can do is equally incentivize good behaviour.

And do bike commuting numbers reduce in bad weather? Sure. But so what? Even if some people only ride their bike on dry days, that still leaves over 200 dry days a year on which they can not contribute to traffic congestion, not spew benzene and carbon monoxide into our neighborhoods, and not help to fund dangerous foreign regimes like Iran. Even if you believe global warming is fake, it's still foolish not to reward such behaviour.

Be careful what you wish for.

Several years ago Mr. Blumenauer spoke before eager citizens at a union hall in East Portland. Spoke and acted like a mayoral candidate.

Convinced everyone in the room to support him and others not to run against him-Portland needed his leadership as mayor.

Be careful of the earnest politican.

The "bicycle commuting" numbers the COP throws around are completely fabricated. I also watch the bridges, frequently, and on days with all kinds of weather. The numbers are very low on nice days, and non-existent on bad weather days.

We already subsidize mass transit and bicycles to little effect. Everyone who is going to ride a smelly bus, slow train, or dangerous bicycle is already using that mode of transportation.

Even if some people only ride their bike on dry days, that still leaves over 200 dry days a year on which they can not contribute to traffic congestion...

...can not contribute to traffic congestion???

Drivers see it every day. If you're a bike rider, try looking behind you sometime. That line of cars you see going 15mph in a 35mph zone might just qualify as congestion. It happens; not everywhere, or all the time, but regularly.

RR:

The definition of traffic congestion is roadway demand that exceeds capacity. Being stuck behind a cyclist who is travelling below the speed limit does not qualify as congestion. If the vehicles would be able to travel 35mph in the absence of said hypothetical cyclist, the roadway is clearly below capacity and congestion does not exist. At most, this qualifies as a minor inconvenience to the drivers, and it should be considered reason to provide improved cycling facilities to allow cyclists and auto drivers to better coexist.

For examples of congestion, look at I405, US26, I5, Burnside, etc. at rush hour. I don't suspect you'll find that cyclists are the cause of this.

The definition of traffic congestion is roadway demand that exceeds capacity. Being stuck behind a cyclist who is travelling below the speed limit does not qualify as congestion.

So when a bicyclist diminishes a roadway's capacity that's not congestion.

OK

I guess it all depends on what your definition of is is.

I am glad that COP has embraced sustainability as part of their job descriptions.

Leading by example is fine. I'm glad they do the same things that all of us should be doing as they carry out the city's core functions. But stuff like mandating canola in the gasoline that's sold in all the gas stations in the town, and banning plastic grocery bags -- that's time and energy that should be spent on other things.

More bike commuting would result in healthier citizens and less money spent on premature health care costs associated with not getting enough excercise.

midgetmono More bike commuting would result in healthier citizens and less money spent on premature health care costs associated with not getting enough excercise.
JK: Have you looked at the death rates of bike riding? From sketchy data I have seen, it appears to be around TEN times more deadly than driving a car.

Then there are the non-collision injuries.

But you are probably less like to get a contagious disease on your bike compared to Trimet’s sardine transit.

Thanks
JK

I studied the rate of injuries in Portland among bicyclists for several years. The rate of serious injuries for bicyclists is about the same as for motorists. The death rate is hard to figure, since there are so few. From one year to the next, the death rate could triple because three people were killed instead of one.

I haven't done the research fo the past three years, but in the years before that, the preponderance of bicyclist deaths occurred among young adults (late teens to early twenties) who were riding at night without proper lights or helmets.

I lived well outside of Portland for three years and when I moved back, I noticed a profound increase in bike traffic, to the point that I think the city should start enforcing bike laws (this after almost being hit by a speeding bicycle without lights at dusk). The traffic definitely tapers off in the winter--I'm pretty much a fair weather biker--but it starts picking up as early as late February. Usually in Oregon, when it's cold, it's also dry and when it's wet it's warmer, so most of the time, the weather is okay for biking. Safety is a concern, because it's hard to see when rain is splattering your glasses.

The perception that cycling is unsafe--and not financial incentives--is the reason that more people don't commute by bike (that and simple inertia).

By the way, Earl is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the nexus of all power in Congress.

To those of you who are urging Earl to run for Senate against Gordon Smith, please point out to me a previous case of a congressman in the majority party giving up his seat on Ways and Means to run for Senate. I don't think it has ever happened before, and I'll bet it doesn't happen in 2008, either.

Passed a good one tonight. Cyclist cruising along on a busy street, no lights on his bike, one hand on the handlebars, the other holding a cell phone up to his ear. At least he had some sort of helmet on.

With Earl on Ways and Means and both Smith and Wyden on Senate Finance, Oregon can influence tax policy to a degree not seen since the Packwood days -- maybe ever.

Not everyone in Portland thinks Mr Blumenhauer is our perfect representative.When I've gone to him with documented waste by Federal and local government, he just dodged. Bicycles? I have 2 and love them. But as serious transportation, in the winter, hauling stuff, or on busy narrow streets, I don't think so. As for wind energy I was all for it until recently. A utility engineer explained it for me. We expect electricity to come through the wall outlets 24/7. Unfortunately the wind blows when it will. So we still have to build expensive fossil fueled, nuclear or hydro plants to generate electricity when the wind stops. (Don't tell Vestas.) Mr. B perhaps represents more than 50% or Portland but ignores or offends the rest of us.

Gil Johnson I studied the rate of injuries in Portland among bicyclists for several years. The rate of serious injuries for bicyclists is about the same as for motorists. The death rate is hard to figure, since there are so few. From one year to the next, the death rate could triple because three people were killed instead of one.
JK: Where did you find the data, especially vehicle-miles?

Thanks
JK

JK: Have you looked at the death rates of bike riding? From sketchy data I have seen, it appears to be around TEN times more deadly than driving a car.

Then there are the non-collision injuries.

midgetmono: "There were zero bike fatalities in 2006. That’s down from four in 2005." according to bikeportland.org.

"Oregon’s fatality rate from car crashes is about 13.9 deaths per 100,000 residents. Oregon’s most urban counties—Washington and Multnomah—have the lowest risk of fatal crashes, largely because residents of compact communities drive less."

-From ODOT website

Reported injury numbers were much higher for cars, except when the cars hit bikes.

I got ODOT to give me the stats on accidents with injuries for both cars and bikes, augmented by Roger Geller, the city's bike guy. For the rate per 1,000, I did use the city's own figures on bike ridership. If you don't trust that, I guess you can't get a good measure on ridership. It's not like there are wild ass claims for the amount of bike riders--by the city's own numbers, only about three percent of all commutes are by bike. Though I'd say that figure rises substantially in neighborhoods closer to the Willamette River.


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