S everal thousand additional federal employees in the Washington area would become eligible to receive tax-free transit benefits under legislation approved by Congress.

A provision in a six-year, $286 billion transportation bill, passed by the House and Senate just before the congressional summer vacation break, would codify an executive order issued in 2000 that requires federal agencies in the area to offer tax-free transit benefits to employees. The legislation would extend the fringe benefit to employees in the legislative and judicial branches.

More than 155,000 federal employees receive Metrocheks or farecard vouchers. Tax rules permit vouchers of up to $105 monthly.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) steered the expansion of the fringe benefit through a conference of House and Senate negotiators last week. Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) pushed for the benefit on the House side.

"Guaranteed benefits will give these employees more choice in their commuting options and provide an additional incentive to move off our congested roadways and onto public transit," Sarbanes said.

Moran said the government, as the region's largest employer, "needs to be setting an example that will help reduce traffic congestion."

In addition to expanding the benefit to thousands more government employees, the bill would allow federal agencies to set up shuttle services between their offices and public transit facilities, such as Metro, MARC and Virginia Railway Express.

Under current law, agencies cannot provide shuttle services to their employees if it is not for official business. The bill would lift that ban, a sore point for Food and Drug Administration employees who hope the agency will be able to offer shuttle service from its new White Oak facility to an area Metro station. More than 7,000 employees are expected to work at White Oak when construction is complete.

Under the April 2000 executive order, federal employees in the national capital region must be offered a benefit equal to their commuting costs but not to exceed $105 this year. Nationwide, employees at the departments of Energy and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency receive the benefit in addition to their salary.

Outside the D.C. area, agencies may offer the benefit on a pretax basis. However, many have chosen to pay for the benefit to keep field employees on par with those in Washington.

Information about transit subsidies for federal employees is available at the Commuter Choice section on the Federal Transit Administration Web site, www.fta.dot.gov.

Closure of IRS Centers Shelved

The commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, Mark W. Everson, announced Friday that he has suspended plans to close 68 of about 400 taxpayer assistance centers later this year.

The House and Senate Appropriations committees have included provisions in a proposed IRS budget for fiscal 2006 that would block the office closings and require additional studies. "I appreciate the concerns raised by Congress about our walk-in centers, and have put these closures on hold," Everson said in a statement.

The National Treasury Employees Union had lobbied to keep the 68 centers open, and union President Colleen M. Kelley said Everson's decision "reverses a plan that clearly would have been counterproductive." The closings would have put 434 IRS employees at risk of losing their jobs.

In his statement, Everson praised the Senate committee for proposing to fully fund the president's budget request for the IRS -- $10.68 billion -- and the House committee for proposing $10.56 billion. The current IRS budget is $10.24 billion, the agency said.

OPM Awards Web Contract

The Office of Personnel Management announced that it has awarded a five-year, $27.1 million contract to Monster Government Solutions to maintain the agency's USAJobs Web site, which lists thousands of federal job openings.

Under a previous contract, Monster helped organize and upgrade the Web site. The site receives about 250,000 visitors a day, up from 27,000 before the August 2003 overhaul, OPM said. Federal job hunters have posted more than 1.5 million resumes on the site, OPM said.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com.