D.C. Council chairman says planned tax on commuter buses ‘is disappearing’

A $5 fee on every non-Metro commuter bus entering the city, every day it enters, has been placed into the District’s new budget. The fee, calculated to raise $273,000 for the city, was approved unanimously by the D.C. Council’s transportation and environment committee on May 9, and then by the entire council on May 22.

When word of the fee spread to the suburbs, many local officials were outraged. They declared it a “commuter tax” and in recent days, the governors of Maryland and Virginia sent letters of protest to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the D.C. Council, asking them to reconsider the fee before their final budget vote Tuesday.

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Then, 10 members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia signed a letter to the mayor and the D.C. Council last week asking them to drop the fee, saying it would undermine the region’s success with mass transit. The letter noted, “At no time were the local and state governments, which either operate or subsidize the commuter bus services, informed or invited to comment about this proposal. In fact, they still have not been notified after the fact.”

The District’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), also intervened with a call to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), and Mendelson said Tuesday that the fee “is disappearing” and will not be approved when the council takes its final budget vote next week.

The quiet spat between the District and its neighbors is part of a long-running debate about commuter taxes in the Washington region. Federal law prohibits the city from imposing a commuter tax, and in 2005 a federal appeals court ruled that the District could not impose such a tax without congressional approval.

But that didn’t stop the D.C. Council from creating what suburban jurisdictions believed was clearly a tax. The council estimated that the fee would cost riders five cents per trip, or 10 cents every day. Both Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) of Maryland and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) of Virginia said the additional cost would push more people back into their cars, “thereby increasing congestion on and maintenance costs for both Virginia’s and the District’s roadway networks,” McDonnell wrote.

Mendelson said he hadn’t seen the letters from the governors, but did receive calls from Norton and others. He said that the $273,000 raised by the fee is “a very small amount” in relation to the District’s $11 billion budget, and so “it’s better for us just to figure this out.”

Local politicians and transportation experts said they feared that establishing a small fee would open the door to increasing the fee in the future.

“It’s a backdoor attempt to get a commuter tax, which the District has been trying to get through forever and ever,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg), whose board issued a resolution last week denouncing the charge. Reid noted the District’s long-standing complaint of “taxation without representation” in Congress and said, “they want to charge us without even discussing it with us.”

“A proposal like this sends a bad message to the public,” said Robert Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “We’re trying to relieve congestion and provide more reliable transit. And we’ve got a proposal here that would force more people out of buses and into cars.”

Gray opposes the fee. His spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said, “When the mayor introduced his budget, he said no new taxes and no new fees. We even meant that for commuters.”

Mendelson said, “It’s an existing fee we are increasing slightly” from $2.50 per day to $5 per day. “I don’t quite know how that is opening the door to something when it would appear this was already in place.”

But District Department of Transportation officials and a spokeswoman for Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said that government-run buses are not currently charged a fee for their permits to operate in the city. A new $5 daily fee would cost bus companies such as Loudoun County Transit and Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation in Prince William County, contracted by their local governments, about $1,250 per bus annually, which would be passed on to riders in higher fares.

Cheh said through her spokeswoman, “I think the congressional delegation misunderstood what the purpose of the fee was. Rather than fight about it, we are going to defer it for now.” Cheh declined to be interviewed about the fee.

The budget proposal approved by the transportation committee, which is headed by Cheh, allocated $173,000 to fund a new “director to end homelessness” for the city, $50,000 to assist residents at farmer’s markets and $50,000 for healthy schools and school recycling.

Kiara Pesante, a spokeswoman for Cheh, said the money actually was intended for a “bus efficiency enhancement project” in the city. She said that after the transportation committee approved passed the fee, Mendelson “redirected those funds to be used for the bus efficiency projects” when it moved to the full council.

Norton’s office declined to comment, as did representatives for several members of Congress who signed the letter objecting to the fee.

 
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