- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The recent clean air bill introduced by D.C. Council members Jim Graham and Phil Mendelson should be called what it really is: a proposal for a de facto commuter tax.

The “Department of Transportation Clean Air Compliance Fee Act of 2008” would impose a fee on all employee parking spaces that do not “generate sales and use tax directed to the District Department of Transportation Unified Fund.” If enacted, the bill would require businesses to pay $25 per month per parking space in which an employee parks a motor vehicle at least two days per week whether or not those spaces are identified as or even reserved for employees. And although the fee is technically imposed on the landowner, the bill allows the fee to be passed on to whomever uses the spaces — the commuters.

Of course, there are exceptions. Certain companies pay a tax which goes toward improving air quality, such as parking garages. Spaces owned by Metro, metered parking spaces and parking owned by foreign governments or businesses with only one parking space are exempt. It is unclear whether federal property is excluded, but it is highly likely that it is. And, we suspect that the lawmakers will exempt themselves, following Republican Council member Carol Schwartz, who has already set precedent with her parking-ticket exemption for her and her colleagues.

Although Mr. Graham’s office could not provide us with the number of spaces that would be affected by this bill (and by our understanding, it would include parking provided by The Washington Times), it’s all but certain that the city would profit handsomely. The revenue would be directed toward air-quality improvement and traffic programs.

We fully grasp the impetus behind the bill: to make driving to work less financially appealing and to force commuters to use public transportation. Mr. Graham criticized Fannie Mae in particular as an organization that does not generate any sales tax revenue and does little to encourage public transportation use. Even in that case, the fee would only work if using public transportation is more convenient and cost efficient than driving. For many, the nightmare of Beltway traffic is the only reasonable option for commuting. Moreover, many businesses use the perk of free parking as incentive for employees who could just as easily find work in Virginia or Maryland.

For years, the council has found nit-picky ways to introduce fees and taxes and to microscopically narrow laws that do nothing to address the problematic infrastructure from which the city’s gridlock blooms. Bike-share programs and public-transportation incentives are all well and good, but punishing commuters for the near-sightedness of D.C. lawmakers is the wrong tack. Besides, D.C. residents already pay a premium parking tax, and it’s called a Residential Parking Permit. If it looks like a commuter tax and it quacks like a commuter tax, it’s probably a commuter tax.


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