Thousands of Bay Area workers will become eligible by Sept. 30 for a new commuter benefit that could save them hundreds of dollars a year if they take public transit or van pools to work.
Employers of 50 of more full-time workers within the nine Bay Area counties must start offering employees at least one of four kinds of assistance for commute alternatives to driving alone.
Bicycle commuters also be may eligible for help depending on which type of benefit their company picks.
Most companies are expected to choose an option that lets workers exclude $130 per month of commute costs from their taxable income, effectively increasing their take home pay.
Companies also may subsidize up to $75 per month of workers' commute costs, or they can create a new low-cost shuttle or van system, like Google's buses used to ferry workers to jobs.
Independent minded companies also can come up with their own alternative benefit as long as it is equally effective in getting workers out of their cars.
Regional pollution and transportation agencies came up with the new commuter benefit requirement to reduce air pollution and auto congestion.
A trial period for the program through 2016 was approved Wednesday by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and last week by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board
"We know most Bay Area employees don't work for Google, Apple, Genentech or other companies that operate their own transit fleets," Amy Rein Worth, the MTC chairwoman, said in a written statement. She also serves on the Orinda city council.
The value of the benefit to workers varies with their tax bracket.
A worker in the 25 percent federal income tax bracket could save about $650 per year if he lowered his taxable income by the maximum $130 per month for commute costs, said Tom Flannigan, an air district spokesman.
While employers will face extra work to prepare and track the benefit, companies will see a payroll tax reduction that could produce a net savings, district officials said.
Federal tax law bars bike commuters from using their own pre-tax dollars to pay for bicycle commuting costs. However, officials said, a Bay Area employer could chose to subsidize bike commuters' costs or provide other pedaling incentives.
The regional commuter benefit was patterned after similar programs already offered in San Francisco, Berkeley and Richmond.
Companies that already offer a commuter benefit will not be required to expand their program, but they will have to file an annual report.