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Is transit benefit good transportation policy?

Saturday, December 4, 2010; 6:50 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Metro whines about the "hardship" that a reduction in federal SmartBenefits will impose on some federal workers, never mind that they'll still get $120 a month at my expense.

I also pay for their agencies' gyms, subsidized food, shuttle buses that save workers from exercise, air travel for which the workers keep the frequent-flier miles for personal use, subsidized health-care plans and lengthy vacations.

Metro is constantly whining about budget shortfalls, but they can't seem to hire and train competent staff who would keep the system in good repair. And of course every penny that Metro gets from sources other than fares and parking comes from me, the taxpayer.

Ian Gilbert, the District

It's a stretch to describe the upcoming reduction in the transit fringe benefit as a hardship, but that doesn't mean the cut is fair.

As you see described elsewhere on this page, the maximum monthly benefit that many federal workers in the D.C. area receive nearly doubled in 2009 thanks to a provision in the federal stimulus law. In January, the monthly limit on the subsidies the employees get for riding transit will fall back to the former cap of $120. Many of our neighbors have suffered more serious consequences in the weak economy than having a temporary bonus eliminated on schedule.

The transit authority talks about a potential reduction in benefits of up to $1,300 a year for some employees, and that's certainly not small change. But the benefit is based on actual commuting costs, and a relatively small portion of of employees were claiming the maximum benefit of $230 monthly for transit.

So how could this reduction be unfair? Because the IRS allows commuters to claim an employer-provided benefit of up to $230 a month for parking their cars. Those who supported the transit provision in the stimulus bill argued there was no reason to treat transit as a second-class form of commuting.

While you're pondering whether these government transportation policies are fair to individuals, consider the collective impact of the benefits. Executive Order 13150, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, authorized the transit fringe benefit "to reduce federal employees' contribution to traffic congestion and air pollution and to expand their commuting alternatives."

The federal government was using money to ease a problem the federal government had created for the capital area: Too many federal employees were driving solo to their jobs, and often using subsidized parking when they got there. Now, transit officials and advocates for smart growth and a cleaner environment are afraid some of those federal workers will get back in their cars.

That's good policy up to a point. But did it have unintended consequences? Did the subsidy help persuade some families to move farther out in the region than they otherwise might? Drivers on Interstate 66, I-270 and the Capital Beltway are sharing the congested highways with drivers on their way to park at the outer Metro stations and board trains.

The transit authority has built more garages at the outer stations to accommodate them. That's not the best use of land around transit hubs. Meanwhile, the fees for Metro parking and for train riding have gone up a lot during this decade, but the public response has been muted. Was that at least partly because so many riders knew the federal government was picking up the tab?

And what about Metro? The federal fringe benefit is an enormous indirect subsidy to the transit authority. The bump in individual benefits paid federal employees to ride during a time when Metro was putting them through a rough patch: the fallout from the Red Line crash; door safety issues; a big fare increase; a lack of promised eight-car trains; maintenance delays; air-conditioning failures; and perennial escalator problems.

If Metro, as an organization, didn't have this federal cushion, would it be forced to compete for those riders with other modes of transportation? That would be a bad thing, if it made highway congestion even worse than it is now. But most organizations, faced with declining revenue, will do what it takes to survive: They'll offer a better product at a competitive rate.

Before you say, "Fine, let's get rid of the federal transit subsidy altogether," there is still that pesky problem of the parking subsidy. If you want Metro to be more competitive, it should not have to compete against employer-provided parking subsidies.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: drgridlock@washpost.com. His blog: washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

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