WASHINGTON — It's a paradox that has long puzzled cyclists.
Commuters who burn a precious resource — oil — to drive to work get a tax break. Those who use their own muscle power to pedal bikes to the office do not.
With the war in Iraq and gas prices soaring, cycling advocates think they have found an answer that both parties can embrace: give bikers a tax break.
"Why should we discriminate in terms of tax treatment for somebody who is not polluting the air, not causing traffic congestion and not taking away from our petroleum reserves?" asked Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.
Biking to work is cheaper than driving or taking a bus, he added, "but it's not free."
Blumenauer, 54, founder and chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Bike Congress, has biked to his Capitol Hill office for years.
Now he hopes to give cycling commuters the same tax advantages available to those who drive or use mass transit.
Currently, employers may offer a commuting tax-exemption benefit totaling $180 for qualified parking plans or $100 for transit and van-pool expenses. The Bike Commuter Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., would extend those benefits to workers who commute by bicycle.
With gas prices now at $2 per gallon or even higher, "the notion of energy conservation should have some broader appeal," Blumenauer said.
According to the League of American Bicyclists, nearly 1 million U.S. workers commute regularly by bicycle.
Budget officials estimate the bike bill could cost as much as $114 million a year in lost revenue — a fraction of the $3.7 billion annual cost of tax breaks for drivers and mass transit users.
Cycling long has been popular in Oregon, where hundreds of miles of bike boulevards, paths and lanes take commuters and casual cyclists through leafy neighborhoods, along the Columbia River and across bridges spanning the Willamette River.
But cycling advocates say passion for pedaling has gone national.
According to the League of American Bicyclists, nearly 1 million U.S. workers commute regularly by bicycle. The federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics lists bicycles second only to cars as a preferred mode of transportation.
Biking's growing popularity was evident during a National Bike Summit this month in Washington. Cyclists from 47 states converged on the city for three days; it was the biggest turnout in the event's three-year history.
The summit's popularity coincides with growth of the bike caucus. The bipartisan group, established in 1996, now includes more than 100 House members. The Senate has started its own group with more than a dozen members so far.
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., a caucus member, calls a cycling a key part of his life.
"It's my relaxation, it's my personal therapy and it's my fitness," said Oberstar, 68.
It also is good public policy, he says. In the past decade, spurred largely by the bike lobby, Congress has more than quadrupled spending on bike projects — to nearly $2 billion. That has helped build almost 20,000 miles of bike trails, put bike racks on buses and establish biker safety programs nationwide.
The Bike Commuter Act would be their biggest accomplishment yet, advocates say.
The bike caucus has sponsored the bill several years in a row, but Blumenauer said he is optimistic this may be the year.
"The momentum is building," he said, "and it's the right thing to do."
On the Net: League of American Bicyclists: www.bikeleague.org