Morning Newsletter

Congress sends crazy message with transit tax policy

Baltimore Sun editorial

Get out of that bus, train, light rail or subway and drive your car to work! Crowd the roads! Burn the most gasoline possible! Pollute the air!

That's the unmistakable message Congress has sent the nation's commuters with its recent choice not to maintain a tax parity between those who elect to take public transit to work and those who drive their own vehicles.

Beginning Jan. 1, U.S. taxpayers who drive to work were eligible for a tax deduction of up to $240 a month for parking costs. That's $10 more than they were eligible to deduct last year and represents an adjustment for inflation.

Meanwhile, those who ride mass transit are left standing on the proverbial platform. Instead of the $230 tax deduction they've been able to take for the past two years to help offset commuting costs, they'll be knocked down to $125, or about half what their car-driving counterparts receive.

Transit advocates saw the disparity coming and had hoped Congress would address it in the extension of the payroll tax break, but alas, it didn't. Instead, the nation now has a de facto national policy that promotes greater consumption of energy, increased congestion and harmful emissions and more dependence on foreign oil.

It's a policy that's particularly destructive toward cities, where transit is most available, and toward the working poor who are more inclined to use it (and for whom commuting is often the second largest household expense).

Perhaps one could argue that the nation can't afford to allow commuters to deduct hundreds of dollars from their pre-tax earnings in these difficult, debt-ridden times. Those who advocate for reducing the deficit immediately could certainly take that stand.

But offering a tax deduction to drivers that is twice the amount offered to transit riders makes no sense whatsoever and certainly doesn't have much positive impact on the deficit. It's bad transportation policy, bad economic policy and bad energy and environmental policy.

Only in Washington, where logic and reasoning takes a holiday (and not just at this time of year), could such a policy be embraced. Here's the only math that could possibly have played a role in this: There are more voters who drive — and would be peeved by the loss of a tax deduction — than there are people who commute by public transit.

This stupidity can't be left to stand. When Congress returns to Washington later this month (by car no doubt) one of the first orders of business ought to be to correct the disparity. If anything, transit ridership ought to be given an advantage over driving — at least the kind that doesn't involve a car pool.

That would be welcomed not just by bus riders but by those who travel by car as well. The last thing congested U.S. urban and suburban population centers need is more vehicles on the crowded roads. Anything that discourages people from getting to places of work is clearly not in the interests of economic recovery.

Despite what anyone in Congress might think, the nation's transit ridership is up about 2 percent nationwide from one year ago, according to the most recent survey. Even Amtrak, that favorite Washington whipping boy, has set ridership records despite a budgetary squeeze.

But that could change once commuters realize that Uncle Sam wants them to drive — at least for those who can afford to do so. Even if the dollars involved are relatively modest (a $240 tax break translates into a subsidy of less than $80 per month for those in the 28 percent tax bracket), the anti-transit message coming out of the nation's capitol is loud and clear.