Report: Blame Uncle Sam for congestion on your commute

WASHINGTON — A report released Tuesday blames the federal government
for congested commutes, saying they offer too many incentives to drive
and too few to use mass transit.

The federal government offers up to $250 per month for employer-provided or
employer-paid parking each month, whereas it only offers $130 per month for
transit benefits. Congress cut the transit subsidy in January, which Metro
says has had an effect on ridership among those who use the benefits.

“The parking tax benefit adds approximately 820,000 automobile commuters to
the roads, traveling more than 4.6 billion additional miles per year,” the
report states.

“The parking tax benefit has the effect of increasing the number of cars on
the road at the times and places of maximum congestion in dense employment
centers such as downtowns,” it concludes.

Metro has lobbied Congress since January to restore parity between the parking
and transit benefits.

“The drop in the transit benefit is having an effect on Metro ridership and it
also means that a lot of drivers who don’t have another option are contending
with a lot of new drivers who might have opted to use transit otherwise,” says
Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Even AAA Mid-Atlantic agrees that Congress made a mistake in January and that
parity must be restored between the parking and transit benefits. Spokesman
John Townsend says the move probably added new drivers to local interstates,
making congestion on I-66, 270, 95 and the Capital Beltway worse than it
already was.

“At minimum, parity should be restored between the transit and parking tax
benefits. One, congressional proposal would re-establish parity at $220 per
month, a level that is between the current parking and transit benefit caps.
Ideally, the transit tax benefit should carry a higher maximum value than the
parking benefit, in order to make it a more effective incentive for transit
use,” the report states.

Another recommendation is the “cash out” option, which would empower workers
to trade in the parking benefit for cash to use on mass transit. The report
recommends that the federal government consider following the example of
Canada and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, both of which allow residents to
claim a deduction or credit on their income taxes for the purchase of all
transit passes.

Locally, it would mean that Virginians or Marylanders could deduct the value
of their MARC, VRE or WMATA commuter passes from their total taxable income.

Cort and Townsend agree that these options are also good ideas.

“The problem is that many employers are not offering transit benefits to their
employees that they could be offering at no cost to the employer [themselves].
We would like our other local jurisdictions to take the first step that D.C.
has taken, requiring employers of a certain size to offer pre-tax benefits to
pay for mass transit,” says Cort.

One of the report’s more controversial and unlikely recommendations is to
eliminate the parking subsidy completely.

“The policy clearly works counter to the nation’s transportation policy goals,
costs federal and state governments $74 billion per year, contributes to
congestion and air pollution and is inequitably distributed,” the authors
write.

Townsend disagrees with this recommendation. While Cort supports the
general idea, she also admits that such a recommendation is not practical and
will not get enough support in Congress.

“Unnecessary traffic congestion is being caused by a lot of ways we’re
subsiding commuters to drive and park. It’s not good for anyone, especially
someone who has to drive to work. It’s also not making the most of a pretty
robust transit network in this region,” says Cort.

The Frontier Group and Transit
Center
wrote the report. Both organizations support and lobby for urban
planning around mass transit.

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