- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

So D.C. Council members are entertaining the novel idea of placing tollbooths at the city’s entryways and sticking a hand in the pocket of those who opt to live in the suburbs because of lower taxes, affordable housing, safer neighborhoods and stronger public schools.

This is a sign of resignation, of being unable to fix that which is broken, of appealing to those who might choose to live in the city if it were not so dysfunctional. Increasing the tax base with a significant bump in population would ease the budgetary gap that perpetually taunts the city’s lawmakers. Or perhaps not.

No matter how much money is dumped into city coffers, our lawmakers find creative ways to spend it. That is a hallmark of most politicians. They never tire of spending our money before devising more strategies to take yet more of our money.

Marion Barry, the Ward 8 council member who plans to meet his own tax bill one of these years, is championing the latest commuter-tax push. No one is calling it a commuter tax because of a congressional ban on it.

Mr. Barry thinks a toll just might be a way around the ban. He talks about suburbanites’ footing their “fair share” of the public-services bill, as if the nearly half-million workers who travel into the city each workday labor in an economic-free bubble.

It might come as a shock to Mr. Barry and the like-minded, but this element of the work force leaves a considerable economic footprint. It contributes to the economic well-being of downtown parking lots, eateries and other retailers, all of whom give the city a piece of their gross. These so-called freeloaders from the suburbs sometimes stay after work and have dinner. Or they attend events at the Verizon Center. Or they make the Georgetown scene.

The city’s small-business owners would pay the price of a toll in terms of lost revenue. Just how might the tavern owners of Adams Morgan feel if their 18th Street commercial strip lost a significant portion of their suburban crowd on the weekend because of a toll? A toll would be added to the headache of finding parking and avoiding the muggers.

The city would have considerably fewer viable small businesses if it weren’t for the nearly half-million workers who live outside the city. They certainly contribute to the city’s economic might, just not in a clearly calculated manner that satisfies tax-gluttonous lawmakers.

Of course, taxing those who live outside the city is a politically safe proposition. You do not have to answer to them on Election Day. All you have to do is collect their money while pretending how necessary the toll is to fix a pothole.

The move to put tolls at the city’s gateways comes from a city whose property assessments have skyrocketed in the past eight years. How has the city managed those monies, besides funneling them down the black hole that is the public school system and meeting the needs of the bloated bureaucracy? That is the conundrum of being a politician. There is never enough money.

Ours has become a city of the haves and have-nots, of a vanishing middle class that no longer can afford to live here, of twentysomethings who opt to live in group houses to meet the rent each month.

These are symptoms of real problems that are not addressed.

What Mr. Barry and the supporters of a toll are saying, “We can understand why a person might choose to live in the suburbs. We certainly have not made it easy on people. And that is on us. But we still want to add the insult of a toll on your commuter burden.” Council members Kwame R. Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. co-introduced the legislation designed to establish a commission to study the feasibility of tolls.

It is a notion that needs no commission, no airing out, so awful is the idea.

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