Open Letter to Senator Boxer
Dear Senator Boxer,
On January 1, Congress is reducing the modest tax break for commuters who use public transit. This would be bad enough, and unwise, but somewhat more bearable if it was part of a shared sacrifice in a time of tight federal budgets. How distressing then, that Congress is at the same time increasing the federal tax break for automobile commuters.
This policy will reward those who drive and punish those who use transit to get to work. This is unfortunate, indeed, as we should do all we can to encourage people to use transit for a variety of reasons, including reducing traffic congestion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as public health (studies have shown that transit users walk more than motorists, which means they get more exercise).
For the past several years, transit commuters and automobile commuters have been able to set aside up to $245 a month in pre-tax income to pay for commuting costs (transit fares and parking, respectively). While the transit tax break is set to be cut almost in half on January 1, the automobile tax break is set to increase to $250 a month. This has occurred in part because the tax break for automobile parking is automatically renewed while the transit tax break must be voted on annually (why the unequal treatment?). Apparently Congress this year thinks it’s a good idea to balance the federal budget on the backs of transit users.
As Donald Shoup has argued, there are a myriad of hidden costs associated with automobile parking, and this is one significant way society subsidizes the automobile. Such subsidies for automobiles skew the choice people make about transportation. Senator, we must shift to more sustainable modes of transportation and Congress must critically scrutinize every penny that subsidizes automobile use in order to create economic incentives to alternative transportation. We should use revenues to bolster our public transportation system so that people have a genuine choice about transportation alternatives. Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize an environmentally unsustainable automobile system with its attendant problems of gridlock and parking congestion without at least offering similar benefits to those who take transit to work. At the very least, Congress should maintain parity between the two instead of giving special treatment to automobile users.
While I expect an auto-centric perspective from some members of Congress, I was extremely disappointed to see your defense of this policy’s unequal treatment of transit users. You told NPR recently:
I don’t agree that you should put one group against the other.
You’ll pardon me Senator, but that is exactly what this unequal tax policy does. It treats transit users inequitably, and in effect encourages more driving, which is a questionable policy from a transportation and environmental perspective.
I think we should encourage fuel-efficient cars, and if someone really needs their car for work, I don’t have a problem with saying, you know what, there’s enough expense here, we can make sure that this isn’t exorbitant for you.
As I’ve argued before, there’s no such thing as a “green car,” and giving people another financial incentive to drive by providing taxpayer-subsidized parking does nothing to encourage truly sustainable transportation, let alone fuel efficiency. Moreover, wouldn’t the same argument hold true for transit use? Why are you willing to subsidize driving, but not transit use?
My own view is there are some people — many people — who don’t have the luxury of being able to take transit.
This argument is wrong on several levels. First, as a transit user, I can tell you that “luxury” is the last word that comes to mind when I’m riding the bus to work. There are many reasons I like taking the bus, but “luxury” isn’t one of them. Second, human mobility is a right, not a luxury. For millions of Americans who can’t afford the approximately $6,000 – $9,000 per year the AAA calculates is associated with car ownership, transit is a necessity, not a “luxury.” I suspect not many of those Americans make it to Capitol Hill to lobby for tax breaks like the auto, highway, oil, and real estate interests do. Indeed, as a recent article in Salon concluded, there’s a deep political bias toward the automobile that keeps transit starved for funds in this country. As Salon noted, the bias runs deep: “for most of the political class, everyone they know and interact with owns a car.” I suspect that most members of your Senate Transportation Committee haven’t actually tried to use transit on a regular basis.
You might try to spin this as automobile populism, Senator, but any policy that privileges the ownership of the motor vehicle as the foundation of its transportation system is not only environmentally unsustainable, it is economically elitist.