The internet has become part of our nation’s mass transit system: It is a vehicle many people can use, all at once, to get to work, medical appointments, schools, libraries and elsewhere.
Telecommuting is one means of travel the country can no longer afford to sideline. The nation’s next transportation funding legislation must promote the telecommuting option...aggressively.
The current funding legislation, called SAFETEA-LU, is set to expire on September 30. On June 24, a House subcommittee approved a discussion draft of the new funding bill: the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009. U.S. Representatives James L. Oberstar (D-MN) and John L. Mica (R-FL), Chair and Ranking Member, respectively, of the Transportation Committee are now sparring with the Obama Administration about just when Congress should focus on reauthorizing SAFETEA-LU; the lawmakers say now; the Administration says 18 months from now. Regardless of the timetable adopted, the measure the House and Senate ultimately pass must maximize the powerful benefits of internet-based travel.
Whereas the infrastructure for cars, buses and trains consists of roads and rails, the infrastructure required for telecommuting is broadband. Fortunately for the framers of the new transportation package, the stimulus legislation already provides significant funding - over $7 billion - to expand access to broadband. The transportation legislation should provide more. It should also expressly encourage the use of that broadband to telecommute.
Some Congressional leaders have called on their colleagues to recognize telecommuting as a full-fledged transportation mode. On May 14th, twelve members of the House wrote to both the House Transportation Committee and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, requesting that they consider including some pro-commuter reforms as they design the nation’s new transportation and energy laws. Among their requests were initiatives to incentivize telecommuting.
One strategy these lawmakers proposed for encouraging telework was to condition federal grants to states and localities for transportation infrastructure on their creation of bold incentives for telework. Why impose this condition? Telework limits the wear and tear on new roads and rails, as well as the demand for further construction. Thus, it protects the federal investment in such infrastructure and mitigates future costs.
There is precedent for insisting that the recipients of federal funding for infrastructure focus on telework’s potential to reduce the need for that infrastructure. Federal law provides that executive agencies, when deciding whether to acquire buildings or other space for employee use, must consider whether needs can be met using alternative workplace arrangements such as telecommuting. Requiring state and local governments that seek federal aid for new roads to include telecommuting in their transportation plans would demonstrate the same kind of fiscal responsibility.
Other lawmakers have introduced legislation specifically linking broadband and more conventional kinds of transportation infrastructure. Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat from California, together with Democratic Representatives Henry A. Waxman from California, Rick Boucher from Virginia and Edward J. Markey from Massachusetts, has sponsored the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act, a bill that would require new federal highway projects to include broadband conduits. Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, Blanche L. Lincoln from Arkansas and Mark R. Warner from Virginia have introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
The proposal set forth in the two bills makes economic sense. It would be an unconscionable waste of taxpayer dollars to dig up roadways, expand and repave them and then dig them up again to lay the broadband pipes the stimulus bill made possible. If the pipes are installed while the roadways are under construction, they will be available when broadband providers are ready to get communities online.
If passed, the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act would only strengthen the case that funding for infrastructure projects should be conditioned on state and local government efforts to facilitate telework. If, as they finance highway projects, American taxpayers also fund broadband, they should not then have to struggle to telecommute. They should be able to help contain transportation costs and, at the same time, easily make the greatest possible use of the broadband access they financed.
What kind of steps to promote telework should states and localities be required to take if they want to qualify for federal transportation funding?
Congress should insist that they provide telework tax incentives for both employees and employers; eliminate tax, zoning and other laws that are hostile to telework; and offer both public and private sector employers technical help in developing and implementing robust telework programs. The government grantees should be required to create such programs for their own employees. They should also be required to designate certain high traffic and high pollution days as telework days — days when employees are specifically urged to take the web to work — and to conduct public awareness campaigns about the benefits of telework.
These benefits go beyond transportation infrastructure savings, emissions reductions, and congestion management. Telework can help businesses and government agencies reduce real estate, energy and other overhead costs and use the savings to avoid job cuts or to hire new staff. It can increase employers’ productivity by 20% or more, and enable them to sustain operations if an emergency, such as the recent swine flu outbreak, compels significant absenteeism.
Telework enables Americans who cannot find work in their own communities – and cannot sell their homes – to look for more distant positions. It can help those still employed to lower their commuting costs and juggle competing work and family obligations. It can help older Americans who cannot afford to retire to continue working even when they no longer have the stamina for daily commuting. And it can help disabled Americans with limited mobility join or re-enter the workforce.
When Congress finalizes its new transportation policy, it must exploit the tremendous mileage it can get from encouraging web-based travel. Conditioning funding to state and local governments on investment by those governments in pro-telework measures – and offering meaningful federal funding to promote telecommuting – is a dual strategy that would yield a greener and leaner transportation system.
In the process, this strategy would advance crucial energy, economic, quality of life and contingency planning goals. A clear emphasis on the need for telework in the new transportation bill is essential to help the nation get to where it needs to go.
Nicole Belson Goluboff is a lawyer in New York who writes extensively on the legal consequences of telework. She is the author of The Law of Telecommuting (ALI-ABA 2001 with 2004 Supplement), Telecommuting for Lawyers (ABA 1998) and numerous articles on telework. She is also an Advisory Board member of the Telework Coalition.