- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

Only Marion Barry would have the temerity to shout righteous indignation about people not paying their “fair share” for all the District has to offer.

Even as federal judges and prosecutors are deciding whether to incarcerate Hizzoner for his long-standing failure to properly handle his personal tax problems, the iconoclastic Mr. Barry introduced legislation in the D.C. Council this week to generate tax revenue from what he contends are freeloading suburbanites.

Mr. Barry, the Ward 8 representative who wants to study the idea of placing tollbooths at the city’s borders, said commuters are tearing up D.C. streets and don’t pay “one nickel.” Wrong. Being one of those freeloading suburban commuters, who actually pays her taxes at every level and on time, it is more than disingenuous of Mr. Barry to suggest that nearly 500,000 workers from Virginia and Maryland are getting a free ride.

For starters, portions of the federal taxes commuters pay are earmarked for highway road construction and maintenance on the bridges and main thoroughfares in this region. Let us not even begin to talk about gasoline taxes, which are collected for federal transportation coffers, also shared by the District.

The federal government also makes a payment in lieu of real-estate taxes for its offices and the services it receives from the D.C. government.

Closer to center city, our employers do not conduct business in the District tax-free, nor do commuters park, dine, shop, entertain or ride public transit go tax-free. Some of those commuters spend more time and money in the District on any given week than they do in their own living rooms. (Ask me how I know.)

Honk, honk. Who does Mr. Barry — and his co-sponsors of this proposal, Harry Thomas Jr. and Kwame R. Brown — think is lining the city treasury with those tax-generating red-light and speed cameras?

The traffic trio will ask the U.S. Transportation Department for $17.8 million to study ways to reduce gridlock, including congestion pricing, increases on parking meters, delivery trucks and tour buses. Again, who pays for all this?

Didn’t D.C. leaders sell their wary taxpayers on that baseball deal based on suburban fans streaming into the city to spend their fun money on tickets, concessions and — what else? — parking.

By the way, the city doesn’t need to set up tollbooths, just get the Department of Public Works Brigade to walk through the bumper-to-bumper traffic with buckets, collecting quarters.

Yes, it is true that in certain metropolitan areas, commuters must pay to drive into the big city. Just look at residents of New Jersey, who find it nearly impossible to enter New York or Philadelphia without paying a toll.

However, D.C. officials are not fooling anyone if they think the public will buy their altruistic rhetoric that they want tolls simply to help ease congestion and air pollution. Far too many of us have had to dig too deep in our pockets to pay for trumped up parking tickets to be that gullible.

John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic said placing tolls in the District would be tantamount to “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

“Barry thinks that people who commute into the city area burden to the city. They are not a burden. They are an asset,” he said.

D.C. leaders have cried victim for years about their inability to “tax income at its source.” And it would be more honest of Mr. Barry to go after the pool of funding he really wants to grab in a straightforward manner. He’s really after a commuter tax, which deserves deeper discussion.

Setting up tollbooths in the District, which would have to win the approval of Congress, will be just about as easy as getting that commuter tax. Given the powerful suburban congressional representatives, including Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and the House majority leader, those competitive proposals are D.O.A.

While Virginia and Maryland officials discuss tolls, “Lexus lanes” and congestion pricing to stem the tide of gridlock, rest assured, they will block the District from competing for those same transit dollars.

So, we will still need a cohesive, cooperative regional solution.

Odd to some, but I have argued in favor of a reciprocal commuter tax for the financially strapped District. Of course, that was before the city’s leadership became benevolent benefactors for developers and the corporate power structure that finally has managed to co-opt the local political process.

Many major cities in this country have implemented reciprocal taxes for years. Under such system, a portion of the taxes Virginia and Maryland workers send to Richmond and Annapolis would be returned to the District, or to a regional body, for construction, upgrades and maintenance of infrastructure we all share.

Speaking of reciprocal, has Mr. Barry ever counted how many D.C. residents are making reverse commutes daily? Or how many D.C. license plates you see trying to get back into town at evening rush hour? Would it be fair play to put tollbooths on the southbound as well as the northbound lanes of the 14th Street Bridge? Further, the imposition of tolls might speed up a flight of businesses from the downtown district, where the office vacancy rates are increasing and a large percentage of leases are close to expiring. The lure of those suburban campuses might be overpowering.

Most of those commuters who Mr. Barry belittles are everyday workers, men and women with families, who already have “a fair share” of their taxes confiscated for public services and pet projects that are not always a benefit to them.

If Mr. Barry did not need federal prosecutors, also paid for with federal dollars, to force him to “handle his business” — like filing and paying all his taxes on time — maybe he would empathize and not add more to other taxpayers’ burden.

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