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To get Congress' attention, America says #StandUp4Transportation

On Thursday, transportation advocates around America gathered to send a message to Congress: Pass a new surface transportation bill, and fix the nearly-broke highway trust fund. Advocates used the hashtag #StandUp4Transportation to get the message out.

All over the US, public officials helped get out the message by riding transit:

Locally, Capital Bikeshare, VRE, and Alexandria's DASH bus got in on the action.

So did Montgomery County RideOn, which hosted local elected officials throughout the day, including Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes.

The existing federal surface transportation bill, MAP-21, expires on May 31, and unless Congress intervenes, the highway trust fund will run out of money in less than eight weeks.

Visit StandUp4Transportation.org to learn more, and to find out how you can help.

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Government


Should Congress be the ones to deliver more and better transportation infrastructure, or should we?

Now that the cromnibus crisis is crover, it's not too soon to remember that the current federal surface transportation spending authorization is going to run out in six months. Before things get down to the wire, we should remind ourselves of why surface transportation finance has become such a messy issue.


Results from a recent focus group study on transportation funding. Image by Lake Research Partners and Bellweather Research and Consulting.

Last summer, Congress allowed the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to nearly go bankrupt before providing a last-minute bailout. But that infusion from the General Fund, along with a dozen short-term extensions and authorizations, is the type of money that's kept federal surface transportation limping along since the last long-term authorization expired in 2009.

Ever since, the federal government has dispensed funds in a way that keeps infrastructure maintenance and construction on a flatline, short-term budget while requiring states and regions to provide plans for the long-term. It doesn't make sense.

The federal surface transportation program currently has no vision; it's a formula rather than a dynamic plan. And in five years of waiting, neither the Obama administration nor members of Congress have filled the void.

A big part of the problem is that transportation has lost the public's trust

Congress is unlikely to raise the gas tax even as prices plummet. We're all completely fed up with crumbling roads and incomplete streets. But instead of blaming a do-nothing Congress, transportation professionals need to confront the fact that actually no one wants to dedicate revenue to our work because the American transportation planning process is opaque and technocratic, wasteful, and unresponsive to public priorities. Some even call it elitist.

Our region has certainly fallen victim to this dynamic. In 2013, a series of focus groups led by the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in DC, Maryland, and Virginia showed that people are generally against attempts to increase revenue for transportation.

But after group participants considered alternatives, like increased tolling or a instituting a charge on vehicle miles traveled, support for increasing the gas tax rose from 21 percent to a majority of 57 percent. Even more telling, a whopping three-quarters of focus group participants wanted more money to go to transit, and 58 percent backed more funding for pedestrian and bicycle projects. Directing new revenue to roads came last, at 53 percent.

A recent national poll by a bipartisan pollster team (and sponsored by my employer, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy) found similar results across party lines, demographic groups, and geographic regions among likely 2016 voters. When asked to distribute a hypothetical $100 in tax dollars among highways, transit, and pedestrian and bike infrastructure, voters divided the money far more evenly among these three pots than Congress currently does.

There is a clear difference between the public's priorities and what the current planning process serves up. Voters of all kinds would support funding transportation infrastructure if we addressed this cognitive dissonance.

Crowdsourcing is a new way for the public to get involved in financing and supporting transportation projects

The federal government could take the wheel in realigning how it invests in transportation infrastructure to match public priorities. But is it likely to do so?

A lot of people are tired of waiting to find out. As an alternative to hoping for money from Washington, staff from the crowd-resourcing platform ioby recently gathered in DC with transit, walking, and bicycling advocates to brainstorm ways to apply their grassroots funding model to projects in the Washington region.

Participants noted that crowd sourcing doesn't just bring purchasing power, but also an opportunity for donors to show political and emotional buy-in for projects in their communities. And while crowdfunding isn't going to build a billion dollar bridge or transit line, a project leader in Memphis recently used the platform to raise matching funds to leverage $4.5 million in other funding to build a two-mile protected bike lane.

Perhaps this new form of civic engagement for transportation projects will help push our leaders toward a new vision for American surface transportation.

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Parking


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 one—about a 20 minute walk to either the House side or the Senate side—costs $270.


SpotHero shows how far a Senate employee would have to walk—and how much she'd have to pay—for 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 compensation—and 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

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Government


Two maps that explain what DC might look like as a state

On Monday, Congress considered DC statehood. But what would DC actually look like if it became a state?


Maps by Geoffrey Hatchard for Neighbors United for Statehood.

The most likely path to statehood for the District would shrink the federal city to a tiny section surrounding the National Mall and other federal properties. That section would remain not part of any state. The rest of the city would then become the 51st state, possibly called New Columbia.

Here's a zoom-in to what would become the remaining federal city.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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