Greater Greater Washington

Congress gives itself more free parking than its own rules allow

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.

How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo by JMT.

Here's the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it's shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That's a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It's hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we're talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don't like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

To figure out the market value of those spots, it would help to be able to check the rates at adjacent private lots. The problem is: There are no adjacent private lots.

According to SpotHero, there are no available monthly parking spots within a mile of the Capitol. The closest oneabout a 20 minute walk to either the House side or the Senate sidecosts $270.

SpotHero shows how far a Senate employee would have to walkand how much she'd have to payfor a monthly parking spot near the Capitol. Image by SpotHero.

There are some cheaper options a little farther away, but the cost of parking more than a mile from the destination is almost inconsequential. Given the extreme scarcity of parking near the Capitol, which employs and attracts tens of thousands of people daily, you can bet that on-site parking is worth significantly more than faraway options. Moreover, if so many employees didn't get free parking on the Capitol grounds, how would that affect demand, and therefore parking rates, at surrounding lots?

According to the law, if an employee is provided with free parking in excess of the allowable limit, the difference should be reported as taxable income, and the employer would have to pay all the normal employment taxes (Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, etc.) on that portion.

IRS staff affirm that the value of any fringe benefit is based on the market. Congress can't just say the parking is worth $250 and call it a day. They have to acknowledge that the benefit they are providing to staff and members is worth the market price. In the case of a reserved parking space directly on the Capitol grounds, it is likely worth much more than the $270 per month established by the adjacent market for parking.

Streets, lots, and garages reserved for US Capitol personnel parking. Image by Streetsblog.

With this understanding, every staffer and member of Congress receiving free parking is not paying tax on at least $240 in annual compensationand that is a minimum estimate. Having seen staffers' pay stubs, I can verify that they are not paying the full value of the parking provided. The failure to report and tax this additional income easily costs the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The scandalous part is that this is a rule that Congress directly controls. If lawmakers wanted to have an even higher limit for free parking, they could debate it and pass an increase. But rather than address the issue, members of Congress simply break their own law.

The Ellipse, just south of the White House, is dedicated to free parking for federal employees. Image by SpotHero.

And it's not just Congress, of course. Most likely, many other federal, state, local, and private entities are guilty of non-compliance with the $250 limit on free, untaxed parking. In DC alone, there are huge swaths of land, like the Ellipse south of the White House, which serve only as free parking for federal employees. To my knowledge, no one is keeping track of the value of those spaces, or if employees with this benefit should be reporting additional income when it exceeds the limit.

If Congress would keep its own house in order in terms of reporting its taxable parking benefits, it could spark a larger conversation around whether this is a reasonable benefit to have in the first place. So long as the gravy train keeps rolling, and everyone both expects and receives free parking on Capitol Hill, we're missing an opportunity for meaningful reform of a tax subsidy that undermines the effectiveness of our national transportation policy.

This post originally appeared on Streetsblog

ART keeps graduating to bigger and bigger buses

After years of using exclusively smaller buses, Arlington Transit is now operating its first full-length 40-foot vehicles.

40-foot ART bus. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

When Arlington launched its first ART bus routes in 1999, it used tiny jitneys that looked more like vans than real buses. Since then, as ART has gotten more and more popular, the agency has graduated to larger and larger vehicles.

In 2007, ART added its first "heavy duty" vehicles - buses that look like buses, not vans. Those were rare at first, but are now a common sight throughout Arlington.

These new 40-footers are the next natural step up. Three of these big new buses now ply Route 41, and you may see them on other routes too.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Montgomery throws more money at unneeded parking

Montgomery County is about to spend tens of millions of dollars on a 395-space parking garage in Wheaton, even though more than 500 parking spaces sit empty in a Metro garage a block away.

Bethesda's $80,000-per-space garage under construction. Photo by author.

The new garage would sit northwest of the Metro station, beneath a mixed-use development that will house several county agencies along with retail stores and 200 apartments. The county will own the garage and office building, while the apartments will belong to the developers, StonebridgeCarras and Bozzuto.

County Executive Ike Leggett announced the complex financing arrangement for this multi-phase project last month. The developers will build a 12-story office building, the garage, and a public plaza for the county.

In exchange, they'll get $102 million in cash as well the land in Silver Spring where the Planning Board currently sits and the rights to use county property in Wheaton for the 200 apartments. They'll build 360 apartments on the Silver Spring parcel, and in both locations, they must include more affordable dwellings than ordinarily required.

When I asked, a spokesperson for the county transportation department did not provide a dollar value for the Silver Spring land or Wheaton building rights. The county spokesperson also would not break out the cost of the garage, but at a typical underground parking cost of $50,000 or more per space, it's likely that Montgomery County is spending at least $20 million on the garage.

The garage will have 383 public parking spaces plus 12 reserved spaces for Planning Board higher-ups. The county has not estimated revenue from the garage, as decisions about hourly rates and the number of long- and short-term parking spaces have yet to be made.

Unused parking spaces are nearby

Meanwhile, a Metro parking garage with more than 500 empty spaces sits close by. In fact, the 977-car Wheaton garage is actually closer to the development site than it is to the Metro station. Under a court order issued when the transit agency condemned land for the garage, it is open to non-Metro riders as well as riders.

This is hardly the first time the Montgomery County Department of Transportation has shown a ravenous appetite for expensive parking garages. Two years ago, in Silver Spring, the county opened a 152-space underground garage around the corner from a public garage that's mostly empty. In downtown Bethesda, where the existing parking is only 72% occupied, the county paid more than $80,000 per parking space for a soon-to-open 900-space garage. And at the White Flint conference center, the county plans to spend $21 million for a garage it will hand over to a private operator who charges $15 a day.

Opaque finances and money wasted on unneeded parking are a blot on projects that do a lot of good for Montgomery County's urbanizing downtowns. With the county suddenly short of money, now is not the time to repeat in Wheaton the expensive mistakes made in Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Breakfast links: Ward 8 changes

Photo by Alyson Hurt on Flickr.
Too affordable?: Many newly renovated Ward 8 condos are seeing plummeting prices on the market while home values continue to rise across the river. Is it a lack of quality neighborhood stores, or is it something else? (CHOTR)

Changing of the guard: With the loss of Marion Barry, five of the DC Council's 13 seats will change hands this year. People are already positioning themselves for the Ward 8 seat. A special election will take place early next year. (Post)

Stadium stutter: The DC Council will move forward with soccer stadium legislation today without the Reeves Center swap. Negotiations will now likely require the use of eminent domain for the parcel owned by Akridge. (Post)

With friends like these: Who were the real opponents of the Columbia Pike streetcar project? It was not just fiscally conservative Republicans. Salon explores the anti-streetcar arguments from Arlington transit advocates. (Salon, Ashley R)

Teaching with technology: Some DC schools have seen success with blended learning, which combines part-time online learning with teacher instruction. But the approach is not proven and one school has had high teacher turnover. (Post)

Too Much Parking: If a parking lot isn't full on Black Friday, it never will be. If you see an empty parking space on Black Friday, take a photo and post it to twitter with hashtag #blackfridayparking. (Strong Towns)

Better bikeshare: Bikeshare has better ridership in high density networks with good connections to on-street bicycle infrastructure, rather than to big attractions. Capital Bikeshare lags behind other cities in density. (Streetsblog)

And...: These are all the planned sites for the 2024 Olympic bid. (Post) ... A personal-car rental startup is coming to DC. (WBJ) ... Dulles is one of the most frustrating airports according to one measure. (WBJ)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 30

It's time for the thirtieth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are five photos of the Washington Metro system. Can you identify the station depicted in each picture?

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The answers will appear on Wednesday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

"Road Code" bill will make Montgomery County's urban streets more ped and bike friendly

Tomorrow, the Montgomery County Council will vote on Bill 33-13, a road code bill that will set a new standard for urban streets. If passed, the bill will make streets narrow, give them pedestrian bumpouts and bike lanes, and set a speed limit of 25 mph when they pass through urban areas.

The crosswalk at Arlington Road and Edgemoor Lane, where a toddler in a stroller was struck by a driver. Photo by the author.

Should the council pass this amendment to the road code, they'll take an important step in reclaiming our urban downtowns from a suburban paradigm. This bill provides the appropriate road design for the walkable, busy communities that are part of the county's future.

Arlington Road as an example

For a concrete example of what 33-13 would mean for Montgomery County, let's look at Arlington Road in downtown Bethesda.

Though it does go down to 25 during the morning and afternoon rush, the speed limit on Arlington Road is 35 mph. Lanes are 12 feet wide, which is two feet wider than the 10 feet that experts agree on as the ideal width for urban roads. The curbs have big radii, which are standard for those built after the 1980s and increase the amount of asphalt pedestrians have to cross.

In February of 2013, a car making a right turn at Arlington and Edgemoor Lane struck a stroller with a child in it just a block from Bethesda Elementary School. Thankfully, while the toddler went to the hospital, he suffered no permanent injuries.

But pedestrian safety activists have focused on Arlington Road since the incident, as it galvanized parents at Bethesda Elementary School to work to make the road safer. Right now, children living 300 yards from the school are eligible for "hazard busing" because the county agrees that crossing Arlington Road's four lanes is too dangerous.

How the new code would shape county roads

If the county built Arlington Road in 2015, under the new code, the road would automaticallyroad's design would have a 25 mph speed limit, smaller curb radii, and 10-foot11-foot wide lanes. The new urban roads in White Flint and the Greater Seneca Science Corridor will all meet these standards, and once White Oak gets rezoned as urban, the same will be true of new roads there. When currently existing urban streets like Arlington Road need to move curbs or build new ones altogether, they'll also be subject to these guidelines.

Although Montgomery's road code bill can only apply to county roads and not state highways like Route 355 (Rockville Pike) or Route 29, it still sets an important precedent. For too long, planners have designed Montgomery's downtown roads to be automotive speedways rather than streets where bicyclists, pedestrians, and cars all make their way. Bill 33-13 makes it clear that urban streets in Montgomery County belong to everyone.

The vote is tomorrow. If you live in Montgomery County and support Bill 33-13, please email the council at today and tell them to do the same.

Remembering Marion Barry

People around the nation who've never met Marion Barry nevertheless have strong opinions about him as a symbol of an era in DC, but he was also a man who touched many lives in many different ways. Our contributors look back at their memories of the "Mayor for Life."

Photo by Tom Bridge on Flickr.

Nick Keenan: I first saw him in person in the late 1990's. I was living in Shaw, the Convention Center was in the planning stages, and it was hugely controversial. There had been a series of public meetings which had grown increasingly heated, and the last one had ended in a near-riot after about ten minutes.

I still remember the president of the civic association standing on a table and blowing a whistle, trying to restore order (why he had brought a whistle to the meeting remains a mystery). Allen Lew had brought a detailed 3D model to the meeting, and I remember him scurrying out, obviously relieved and somewhat surprised that his expensive model had escaped the angry crowd.

It was against this backdrop that Marion Barry came into the neighborhood a few weeks later, to talk with us about the Convention Center.

He had an almost magical effect on the crowd. His charisma was obvious. The crowd was generally hostile, but he won them over. "We're not going to get anywhere," he started, "with people yelling at each other. I'm going to have an assistant hand out cards, and if you have a question or a comment write it on a card, and I will read them all."

And like that, it was over. People had come for a raucous meeting, but they were going to get a bunch of questions read off cards. Or course he never did read all of the questions, but it didn't matter. The Convention Center was approved a few months later.

Veronica Davis: My most vivid memory of Marion Barry was at the Ward 7 Economic Development Summit held last year. He sat next to me at the table as we discussed the future of Ward 7. This was my first time being able to have a one-on-one conversation with him about development. Although I disagreed with some of his ideas, I did not interrupt him. I sat there quietly listening to him and learning from him.

Marion Barry and I both had a hobby of live tweeting the TV show Scandal. One episode he and I were having a Twitter conversation trying to guess the mole. After giving my theory, he tweeted back "Now you're thinking politically." Granted, it was only Twitter, but I felt as if he had given me a gold star.

A common description throughout all the tributes to Marion Barry is he was a complex man. Despite his faults, he was fascinating and above all charming. There were times I found myself as one of his critics and others I was one of his defenders. He was indeed complex. There is no doubt he will be remembered as a legend.

John Muller: Growing up in the periphery of Washington City, I heard constant chatter of "Mary and Barry." It was not until grade school I understood "Marion Barry" was one person, the powerful and controversial Mayor of DC. Years later, as a local journalist I found myself covering Barry as the Ward 8 Councilmember.

Two memories particularly stand out that speak to the pathos of how and why Barry was near universally beloved in Ward 8. While putting the finishing touches on a story years ago about the Big K saga for East of the River I got a call from Barry around 9:30 pm. "John, I hear you're writing about Big K. I gotta get in that story." We spoke for 30 minutes. I obliged his request.

Last year as Barry entered one of the hundreds of community meetings I've covered, He saw me hanging near the back and offered his hand. "Congratulations on your book, John. We need to do a better job of honoring Frederick Douglass. You've done a great thing for this community."

To be recognized by Barry was, for the fleetingness of moments, to be caught up in his star-crossed relationship with Washington City. For many of the last, lost and least in our city who struggle with issues of illiteracy, employment, substance abuse, and housing Barry's mere acknowledgement of their existence was enough to overlook his personal demons and the failure of city leadershipoften his leadershipto change circumstances of their lives.

Brent Bolin: I had crossed paths with Barry a few times in my Anacostia River work, but we activists were turning up the heat on the issue of remediating toxics in the river and scheduled a press conference for the week before the 2010 primary. We stood on one of the toxic sites on the banks of the river and challenged all of the councilmembers to sign a pledge that by the end of their terms there would be a plan in place to deal with the toxics (knowing the actual remediation would take years and years).

Ironically most electeds were just down the river at a Yards Park event, and then a few came upstream to our press conferenceChairman Gray, Marion Barry, Tommy Wells, and Harry Thomas. The press conference was on a dirt lot literally on the riverbank with a few cars parked along the side, and as a group of us waited for officials and press to arrive a Jaguar pulls up and parks smack in the middle of the site.

I was standing some distance away at angle thinking, who the heck is parking in the middle of the event? And then of course the Mayor For Life nonchalantly gets out of the car (even more nonchalantly than he parked) and starts chatting folks up like he owns the place (because he does). And here's the kicker sure to please the GGW crowd: a few minutes later Tommy Wells rolled up on his bike. The contrasting arrivals make me chuckle to this day.

Mr. Barry was coming off a serious illness and I'd heard some people say he had lost a step as a result, but as we talked I found him sharp as could be, and funny, and he really knew a lot about the river. I emailed the below picture to pretty much everyone.

Photo by Brent Bolin.

And you: Did you interact with Marion Barry personally as more than just a legend, an icon, a caricature, or a symbol? Post your recollections in the comments.

Breakfast links: Life of a Mayor

Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.
Marion Barry dies: DC's "Mayor for Life" died on Sunday from a heart attack. Barry's history paralleled that of the city he led, from the struggle for civil rights and home rule to the crack epidemic and receivership. Many journalists look back on his storied life. (Post, WBJ, City Paper)

Olympics group eyes venues: The businessmen behind the DC-area Olympics bid have begun identifying potential venues, including a resurrected Arlington aquatics center, but are still being fairly secretive about plans. Others remain skeptical of the benefit. (Post, RPUS)

Improve the stadium deal: With the Reeves Center likely out of the soccer stadium deal, DCFPI proposes five ways to improve it further, including capping the budget, using other public land, and eliminating tax breaks. (DCFPI)

Wilson changes popular: Neighbors mostly approved of a Wilson Boulevard road diet in the Bluemont neighborhood that would add a turn lanes and bike lanes. Future plans include wider sidewalks as well. (ArlNow)

From nowhere to NoMa: The NoMa-Gallaudet station has radically changed the surrounding area in the decade since opening, adding residences, retail, and hotels where none existed before. (City Paper)

What's next for streetcars: A Columbia Pike resident lays out next steps after the streetcar. Meanwhile, DC must move quickly to restore faith in its own streetcar program, which has been delayed again pending safety approvals. (ArlNow, Post)

No Hollywood here: Residents living below the Hollywood Sign got Google and Garmin to hide directions to the landmark, sending tourists to far-away viewing locations instead. They have also harassed those posting directions. (Gizmodo)

And...: Is gentrification a cure for segregation, and is there a middle ground? (Post) ... What happens when a Mini Cooper driver blocks a streetcar? (BBC) ... The Federal Housing Administration continues to subsidize sprawl. (Streetsblog)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Metro in the Flickr pool

This week, I've picked some of the best images of Metro from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Photo by washingtonydc.

Photo by nevermindtheend.

Photo by Beau Finley.

Photo by BeyondDC.

Photo by Beau Finley.

Photo by nevermindtheend.

Photo by nevermindtheend.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

WABA says an Arlington Boulevard trail is a good bet

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) thinks the region's next major bike trail should run along Arlington Boulevard from the National Mall to the eastern border of Fairfax City. On Tuesday, it released a report on how make it happen.

Sections of the existing and proposed trail. Map from WABA. Click for an interactive version.

Once a main artery into DC, Arlington Boulevard now alternates between being a high-speed highway and a suburban or urban boulevard that has various levels of development and density. This varied nature affect's Arlington Boulevard's pedestrian and bike facilities, making it relatively easy to travel some sections on foot or bike but also creating some where it's rather difficult.

Connecting the infrastructure that's already in place would give Arlington Boulevard a trail nearly 25 miles long in both east and west-bound directions, opening up several neighborhoods and commercial areas to non-drivers.

Part of WABA's report documents just where these gaps are and how long each one is.

Almost half of the total route is already built to a point where even the most inexperienced of cyclist should feel comfortable riding on it, but the longest stretch of this type is, currently, only 1.2 miles long. About 40% of the route requires cyclists to ride in traffic or are narrow enough that only experienced cyclists would feel comfortable riding.

Finally, there are parts of the route that are simply too dangerous for anyone not in a car. The longest of this type is where Arlington Boulevard meets I-495 and Gallows Road, where anyone looking to get through on a bike or on foot has to make over a mile-long detour.

Specific parts of the route that need attention

The latter half of the report details how Arlington could improve specific sections of the route. In many cases, the county could use Arlington Boulevard's wide right of way along with some of the access roads that run parallel, carving out space for pedestrians and bikes without cutting existing travel lanes. Other trails and paths along the route simple need to be better maintained.

Pedestrians along Arlington Boulevard. Image from WABA.

There are parts of the route, though, that would need substantial work.

There's currently a plan to widen Arlington Boulevard underneath the Seven Corners interchange, and that would need some sort of path if non-drivers are to avoid a lengthy detour. Another significant challenge lies between Annandale and Gallows Road, where WABA notes that a bridge would be needed to cross 495. That'd likely be the most expensive part of the project.

WABA estimates final costs to be around $40 million, but says a trail would pay long-term dividends

WABA estimates the full 23-mile route would cost around $40 million, but that's just an estimate. WABA says it needs more information to fully understand what the project would cost, but does do believe bundling trail work with other road work along Arlington Boulevard could keep costs low.

To be clear, WABA isn't just throwing these proposals up out of the blue; its suggestions are actually in line with a number of projects for which the Virginia Department of Transportation recently identified Arlington Boulevard as a potential recipient.

Continuous pedestrian and cycling facilities will help make Arlington Boulevard a road that connects neighborhoods rather than divides them. It can also help shape future land use and planning decisions in areas that might otherwise be fated to be stuck next to a high speed highway.

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