"Hanging on to the last vestiges of a car-based economy"
DC Councilmembers Jim Graham, Tommy Wells, and Phil Mendelson had sharp questions for representatives of numerous industry groups at yesterday's hearing on the parking tax loophole.
Clearly coordinated in advance, industry reps from the hotels, universities, hospitals, building owners, Pepco, and even nursing homes and Covenant House (always good to pull the heartstrings with those) got up to say that this "was a tax, not a fee", and would have "unintended consequences" because their poor working-class workers rely on this "important benefit" of free parking.
"I think this is the wrong benefit," argued Mendelson. Wells asked whether the testifying industries also provided entirely free health care to their workers in addition to the entirely free parking. And what about MetroChek/SmartBenefits? "You subsidize people to drive into the District of Columbia," said Wells. "I think you have an obligation to also subsidize people to take mass transit."
Barbara Lang of the DC Chamber of Commerce wasn't even sure if she provides SmartBenefits to her employees, first testifying that she doesn't, then correcting herself after the hearing. But SmartBenefits usually only means the employee pays for the transit pre-tax, with no cost to the employer (they actually get a tax benefit); she doesn't provide completely free transit passes as an alternative option to completely free parking.
For that matter, Lang doesn't even believe her employees would want to take transit. Her staff often attend evening functions, working as late as 10 or 11 in the evening, and many are female; it's not safe for them to be taking Metro. (Lang apparently never takes the often-overcrowded Metro in the late evening, perhaps because she has free parking).
"You have to challenge yourselves," Wells said. "Are you hanging on to the last vestiges of a car-based economy?" He pointed out the excess capacity on the east side of Metro (like the Orange and Blue Lines east of Capitol Hill), the "steady stream of cars" driving through neighborhoods, and even held up his copy of Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking.
The most ironic part? It turns out that Lang's Chamber of Commerce pays $200/month per space to their garage to subsidize employee parking. That means she's already paying the existing tax right now, and this bill wouldn't apply. In fact, as Graham pointed out several times in the hearing, the industry groups fighting this proposal so strongly didn't even know how many of their members would be affected, how many free parking spaces there are, or which employees receive them.
Many industry groups stressed their commitment to the environment, through green roofs, emissions reduction programs, and more. The hospitals, of course, especially stressed their support for reducing air pollution and asthma. But their environmentalism and public health interest stops at the parking lot's edge.
Cheryl Cort from the Coalition for Smarter Growth wrapped up the discussion with some concrete suggestions to improve the bill. She recommended applying this only to downtown and to large parking facilities (over 100 spaces) outside. Downtown has the clearest opportunity for reselling the spaces if employees stop receiving them for free, and the richest transit alternatives.
We should also require office buildings to stop bundling parking in leases. When the spaces aren't bundled, if the employer pays for free parking (as Lang does) they are renting the spaces directly and already paying the existing tax. But when spaces are bundled, they don't because we don't know the value of the spaces.
Knowing the value of spaces has additional benefits. Once spaces have a clear market value, it's easier to create parking cash-out programs that let employers give employees the $200/month in lieu of a parking space. In transit-poor LA, 20% of employees chose that option when given the choice. Employees could use the money to pay for transit, rent the occasional Zipcar or take the occasional taxi, or even better afford a home nearer transit or within walking distance of work.
In the short run, cash-outs could mean more parking spaces downtown available for short-term shoppers; today, many garages are full during the day and only allow monthly parkers. In the longer term, we wouldn't need to build so much parking; Howard University, for example, could then redevelop some of their many surface parking lots into more productive uses.
This was not a formal hearing on a bill. The Council actually passed the same bill with no opposition in 1994, but suburban Congresspeople forced DC not to implement the law; in 2003, Mendelson and Graham proposed the same bill, which received no opposition then either. Due to the opposition raised today, Graham decided to hold a "public roundtable" to solicit input, which will lead to a new bill and an official hearing in the fall.
- Community stories show the shift to a walkable lifestyle
- Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Some are pushing to limit sidewalk cycling
- Where is downtown Prince George's County?
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional