Report: Blame Uncle Sam for congestion on your commute

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.

Read the original article here.