In D.C. area, fees for shopping bags, parking pinch consumers

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A01

Starting Friday, consumers in the District will shell out more for disposable shopping bags, and in a few weeks, they'll pay more to park on the city's streets -- all part of a year-long trend around the Washington region to generate fees to help close budget gaps and pay for programs.

Shoppers at grocery, drug and liquor stores -- retail outlets that sell food and alcohol -- will have to pay 5 cents for every disposable plastic and paper sack they stuff with their purchased goods unless they use their own bags.

And by mid-January, there will be relatively few places in the city where drivers can park for less than $2 an hour.

Although many of the new charges will be in the District, Maryland and Virginia have also been scrambling to raise money, mostly with fee increases. No service seems immune, including fines for overdue books from Fairfax County libraries and carpool permits in Montgomery County.

According to recent estimates, the potential budget deficits next year are $104 million in the District, $2 billion in Maryland and $4.2 billion in Virginia. Each is struggling with possible employee layoffs and service cuts.

The District's fiscal year began Oct. 1 and brought increases in sales, cigarette and gas taxes. But there's more to come Friday, with the bag fee. And by mid-January, the city will complete the conversion of 14,749 parking spaces to charge $2 an hour.

Also beginning in a few weeks, drivers will have to pay to park on Saturdays and until 10:30 p.m. downtown. The changes -- meter conversions, the lift of the Saturday moratorium and late-night enforcement -- is expected to add up to an estimated $7.6 million in revenue for the city.

"Nationally, people are fed up with the government nickeling and diming consumers. That's what we're doing," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. "You can call 'em fees. They're all taxes. If it's a duck or a chicken, it's all a bird. . . . Our challenge going forward is, with flat revenues, what are we going to do?"

Evans said he has been getting complaints about rate increases on meters. By the time the city puts into effect all of its new parking rules, just 2,408 spaces will be covered under the old rate of 75 cents an hour.

"As a revenue-raiser, people are getting annoyed," he said. "You have to carry around a bag of quarters."

Parking fees' pitfalls?

The D.C. government will make money from the changes, but it has other goals, including encouraging turnover in metered spaces and stimulating commerce in business districts.

John B. Townsend II of AAA Mid-Atlantic questioned whether the increases would make suburban restaurants and entertainment centers more attractive.

"They can say all they want to about parking turnover, but it's short-sighted," said Townsend, manager of public and governmental affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "They will make Washington a less desirable place to wine, dine and vacation. They'll kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."

But the suburbs have also hit on parking spaces for cash. In Montgomery, the short-term parking fee went from 75 cents to $1 per hour July 1. Carpool permit fees also rose. A two-person permit went from $70 to $90 per month, according to the adopted county budget.

In Fairfax, the fiscal year also began in July, and book lovers got a few surprises that county officials estimate will add up to $300,000 in revenue for the year.

Guests, those without library cards, have to pay $1 to use the Internet. Overdue-book fines that once cost 10 cents a day for children and 25 cents for adults are now an across-the-board 30 cents a day. "We used to make a distinction. There's no longer a distinction," said Sam Clay, director of the Fairfax library system.

Also, there's a $1 look-up fee. "If you come without your library card, you have to pay a dollar for us to look up your number," Clay said.

It sounds silly, Clay said, but library workers were spending a lot of time looking up members' numbers -- 400,000 times in the previous year. "We're seeing a real behavior modification already," Clay said.

Changing behavior

A change in behavior is also the goal of the District's bag tax. Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, said revenue is not its purpose. Estimates show that revenue should decrease as people use more reusable bags. "This isn't about raising money. It's about changing behavior," Foster said.

Proposed bag taxes in other jurisdictions have failed because of public outcry or pushback from the plastics industry. But the D.C. Council passed the legislation with ease as businesses and advocates backed the idea of saving the Anacostia River, which is clogged with bags and other litter.

"In other states, they focused on the bags themselves," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "We attached our message to the river."

Businesses such as Giant, CVS and Safeway have partnered with the city and others to give away reusable bags. On Friday, cashiers at Giant's seven D.C. locations will bag all groceries in reusable totes.

Wells and the bill's co-sponsors made some concessions to businesses to make the law more appealing. The fee is on both plastic and paper bags. If it had applied only to plastic bags, stores would have been forced to offer paper, which costs more than plastic.

There was also a compromise on the implementation of a ban on nonrecyclable bags. It will start in April, instead of Friday, to give retailers time to shed their stock.

And in the biggest collaboration, retailers will keep 1 cent from each 5 cents charged. If they offer a program that credits customers at least 5 cents for bringing their own bags, retailers get to keep 2 cents. The fee will still generate an estimated $3.6 million the first year to be placed in a new fund for the river, according to a fiscal impact statement.

But what about concessions for consumers?

"They keep two, and three goes to the river," said Seloise Phillips, 63, with a wink.

She and fellow food service worker Antionette Joyner had just finished shopping at a Target in Columbia Heights. "Five cents? You gotta be kidding me," said Joyner, 46, who struggled to carry her cat food and other items. "It's crazy. They're just going to lose customers. No one wants to pay five cents."

Staff writer Robert Thomson contributed to this report.

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