My endorsement of the DC Council’s “clean air fee” proposal generated some lively debate. Here are some of the objections raised, and my responses.

  • Objection: “In the regional context, [the bill] puts DC at a disadvantage compared to other office districts.” First, it’s important to note that non-free parking is already taxed. What this bill does is simply to equalize free and non-free parking, so that we’re not further encouraging free parking by making it even cheaper. It’s a loophole that needs to be closed. Plenty of offices already provide paid parking, which is taxed; I haven’t been hearing reports of offices fleeing because of that existing tax (or because of the burden on employees having to pay to park their cars). In fact, DC’s downtown office market is extremely strong. Coupled with the height restrictions, there’s no incentive to create mixed-use residential buildings downtown because office space is so valuable. Downtown is spreading into new areas like NoMa and Near Southeast because of a lack of land. And if anything, rising gas prices are making it more appealing for businesses to locate in downtowns here and elsewhere. With limited office space, DC doesn’t need to attract offices that think free parking makes the difference between locating in DC versus a suburban office park outside the Beltway. Besides, we should lobby other jurisdictions to follow suit, especially the dense areas like Arlington, Bethesda, or Silver Spring.
  • Objection: “If they said they’d use the money for transportation improvements only, then it might be palatable.” The bill directs the money to the DDOT general fund “in order to fund transportation projects that will help the District meet national ambient air quality standards.” I agree that the language should be stronger. In particular, anything that increases the cost of driving (like parking taxes or a congestion charge) should be dedicated to increasing alternatives to driving. Not only is it good policy, it’s a good equity move to ensure that the people who pay the tax can benefit from alternatives.
  • Objection: “We already have a tax for “wear and tear on the roads and pollution.” It’s the gas tax.” Richard Layman responds to this one in the comments: “Disabuse yourself of the notion that roads are fully paid for by gas taxes and registration fees. Nope. About 50% of the cost of roads comes from general fund revenues.”
  • Objection: Unless employers pass along the cost to the workers, “it will have no impact at all on travel behavior.” There are other ways a business can pass on the incentive not to drive without actually charging employees for parking directly. Maybe one will institute a free shuttle like Google’s in Silicon Valley. Maybe another will decide to give a parking cash-out to employees. (A cash-out is where the employee can receive the cost of the parking in added pay or other benefits instead of the free space.)
  • Objection: $25/month might be too high in lower-rent commercial areas. A better bill would establish the true market rate of the parking being given away, and either mandate or provide and incentive for employers to create parking cash-outs. An ideal bill would minimize unnecessary drag on business in the District, but would also ensure that employees have a true choice between driving and transit, without a subsidy to driving. Between free parking, free bridges, and an inadequately funded Metro system, our government continues to push the driving option in many small ways. This bill is a good start in an effort to correct those hidden subsidies.
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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.