- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2000

LONDON.

It was a bleak place then, as one writer described it, one where soot fell like snowflakes gone into mourning for the loss of the sun. Jostling crowds of pedestrians and horses suffered an early version of road rage, a "general infection of ill-temper." And always there was a choking, polluting fog.

More than a century later, London still has a Dickens of a problem. As the latest edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook series describes it, the city's roads are horribly jammed by the more than 140,000 commuters pouring into the city each day to join the buses, taxis and cars already here. Traffic moves, the guidebook says, at about the speed "when horses and coaches clogged the streets in the 19th century." Drivers, meanwhile, are "aggressive in the extreme," and road rage is common; some 75 percent of all drivers claim to have had a bout with it, according to a 1999 survey. In addition, the pollution their vehicles emit has led some bicyclists to wear masks to protect themselves from the fumes. Eight of the 10 most polluted streets in this country are in London.

Still in something of a fog itself, the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced it's going to tax its way out of the city's congestion and pollution problems: It plans to impose a levy on employee parking places. Local jurisdictions are to apply the tax, which is expected to range from 750 pounds to 2,000 pounds (pounds x 1.62=dollars) a year.

From the government's perspective, "free" parking is a benefit that subsidizes sinister habits like driving to work. If drivers had to pay the "full" cost of parking, the argument goes, they might be more willing to use mass transit or to carpool. Environmental activists and other central planners in the United States like the idea for the same reason. Given that some workers in the D.C. region are already willing to stand in "slug lines" through rain, sleet and snow to ride into the city with complete strangers Washington's idea of a "working" transportation system imagine how many more would do so if faced with a parking tax.

In reality, the parking tax is a tax on the mobility and freedom that comes of using an automobile to avoid standing in lines to carpool. Moreover, there is no such thing as "free" parking anyway. Business owners pay a price for parking places when they buy their business property or, in the case of the individual entrepreneur working out of her basement, when she buys her house. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consider the case of two otherwise equal houses in Georgetown, one with off-street parking, the other without. One guess as to which would be more expensive. Businesses and employees pay for "free" parking. Mr. Blair is now asking them to pay twice.

Beside the philosophical objection to the mobility tax, the British government has quickly discovered that there are practical ones. Already, the Financial Times reports, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has bowed to lobbying from nurses to exempt National Health Service hospitals from the parking tax. Theirs is potentially lifesaving work that the schemes of government transportation planners aren't flexible enough to serve. Just imagine the conversation: "Sorry about your daughter. The bus drivers were on strike today." In this fashion, the mobility tax could easily evolve into a tax on the sick. But once the government makes an exception for nurses, it also becomes harder to deny equally deserving groups their own exemptions.

The very worst thing about the parking tax, however, is that it won't work. It's a ready-fire-aim tax that wounds indiscriminately. Complained the Financial Times: "If the objective of the tax is to reduce congestion, it is a blunt weapon. It will reduce the cars in workplaces irrespective of whether they contribute to congestion. It will penalize people who stagger journeys to avoid rush hour or who travel to and from work outside normal working hours. It will leave fat-cats whose companies pick up the tab free to jam the city streets." Exactly right.

Better would be a user fee that targets those and only those who actually contribute to the traffic congestion. Drivers who travel at times of peak demand that is, morning and evening rush hours would pay a higher fee to be collected through technology already in use on, for example, the Dulles Toll Road. Money collected could be used to maintain the roads and, where possible, to expand capacity. By discouraging those who didn't have to be on the roads during peak use, perhaps grocery shoppers and vacationers, the fees would prompt better traffic flow and reduce the pollution that comes of hundreds of thousands of idling automobiles going nowhere quickly. Scrapping gasoline taxes, a wonderful revenue enhancer but lousy traffic manager, would help offset the congestion fees.

Those who object to a "new" congestion fee should understand that they are already paying one in the form of time lost in traffic jams. Their choice therefore is to pay the fee in dollars or, alternatively, in the horse-and-buggy pace of London traffic and the general infection of ill will that Dickens reported so long ago.

E-mail:

smithk@twtmail.com

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