The transportation subsidy policies of federal agencies differ. A lot.

Some give employees the maximum amount allowed by law. Some give less, including nothing at all.

Some give subsidies to all employees. Some limit payments to certain groups.

Some go for programs that provide tax incentives--rather than a voucher or a direct cash subsidy--to workers who take the bus, subway, train or van pool to work.

Some say they can't afford the transit subsidy program but provide low-cost or free parking to certain drivers.

More than 180 federal agencies--or parts of agencies--in the Washington area participate in the popular Metrochek program. Metrochek vouchers are available in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $15, $20, $21 and $30. They are accepted by most of the Washington area's public transportation operators.

Some operations, like the Interior Department, use a different system, called the Transportation Fringe Benefit Program. Interior says that 1,155 employees nationwide use the program, which provides tax incentives that partially offset the cost of commuting by public transportation.

As reported in the Federal Diary last week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has authorized his department to give subsidies worth up to $65 a month for public transportation. That could nudge nonparticipating agencies to get with the program, and encourage (or shame) others to raise payments to employees.

At the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the National Association of Government Employees is trying to negotiate a $100-a-month public transportation subsidy. NAGE says that is the new limit established by Congress.

Although a large number of departments and agencies (or parts of them) give workers transportation subsidies, a few are still outside the program. That includes the Defense Department, the largest federal employer in the Washington area.

Defense has long said it won't give transit subsidies to civilian federal workers because it can't--by law--give them to military personnel.

Some agencies provide transit vouchers to all employees who pledge to use the vouchers themselves--as opposed to giving them to friends or relatives or selling them.

Some agencies, such as the White House, limit subsidies to lower-income employees. Some agencies give public transit subsidies as a bonus for good work.

At the same time, some agencies provide subsidized parking to two groups: disabled employees and the top brass--not necessarily in that order. VIPs who often make the call on whether the agency participates in transit subsidy programs--and if so, to what extent--generally have reserved parking spaces at the office.

Locally, the most popular program is the Metrochek system. Details can be had by calling 202-962-1326. Bear in mind that agencies must sign up for the program. Individuals cannot commit their agencies to the program.

Here's a partial list of departments and agencies participating in the program in the Washington area. In some cases, only parts of a department or agency may be part of the program:

The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Transportation and Treasury, the Executive Office of the President, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Export-Import Bank, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Congressional Budget Office, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Agency for International Development, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the National Labor Relations Board, the National Science Foundation, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Court of Veterans Appeals, the D.C. financial control board, the Bankruptcy Court for the District, the Administration on Aging, the Panama Canal Commission, the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the Legal Services Corp., the Marine Mammal Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Selective Service System, the Office of Government Ethics, the Peace Corps, the Postal Rate Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Tax Court and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Although Defense does not participate, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces do take part in the transit subsidy program.

Almost forgot, the Ozone Transport Commission is a participant. Imagine leaving that group off the list.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com

Tuesday, Nov. 23, 1999