Ecocentric

Congress Is Screwing Public-Transit Users — and We’ll All Pay the Price

The tax credit for public transit is set to fall by more than 45% next year while the subsidy for parking goes up. Why that's bad news for everyone

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Ira Block via Getty Images

It will cost more next year for commuters to travel by public transit like the subway

Correction appended: Dec. 31, 2013, 2:00 a.m. E.T.

Commuting costs Americans money, time, health and sanity. Workers spend about 50 minutes a day on average getting back and forth to the office, but that number hides huge differences, with some 1.7 million Americans spending more than three hours a day commuting, and another 2.2 million Americans traveling at least 100 miles a day. (About 600,000 people — the megacommuters — are forced to do both.) And then there’s the traffic — in 2011 commuters spent on average 38 hours stuck in gridlock, some four hours longer than the average workweek. Commuting costs Americans about $1,500 a year on average, and that doesn’t include the $818 in productivity that the average American loses because of the hours wasted in traffic. Oh, and researchers have found evidence that long commutes are linked to obesity, neck pain, insomnia and divorce.

So you’d think that Congress would want to take steps to ease the pain of commuting, perhaps by diverting drivers to public transit, which alleviates traffic and helps the environment. Through this year, Americans have been able to set aside up to $245 a month in pretax money for use on public transit. (That includes commuter rail, subways, buses, trolleys and ferries — basically anything you’re not driving yourself.) But starting on Jan. 1 — thanks to Congress’s failure to renew the credit before heading home for the Christmas break — that tax break will be cut by more than 45%, and commuters will only be able to set aside a maximum of $130 a month. That could cost the heaviest users more than $1,000 a year. And to add insult to injury, the tax credit for driving commuters will actually be going up, with Americans allowed to set aside up to $250 a month in pretax money for spending on parking, an increase of $5 a month.

(MORE: Ride the Science Train — a.k.a. the New York City Subway)

This is stupid. There’s an enormous public benefit to supporting public transit. The overall effect of having buses and subways available saves an estimated 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually, and reduces carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons a year. Tax benefits for public transit are also progressive — the median household income for the average public-transit user was $39,000 in 2007, compared with $44,389 for the population as a whole. Cutting the public-transit tax credit while increasing the credit for parking isn’t just bad for the climate — it’s patently unfair.

But let’s say you don’t use public transit (and since 80% of commuters drive alone to work, you probably don’t). Why should your tax money go to the 5% of Americans who need to use a bus or a train to get to work? For one thing, driving in America is deeply subsidized — and often by people who aren’t drivers. According to a study by the Tax Foundation, just 32% of the funding for America’s roads comes from gas taxes, tolls or other fees levied on drivers. The rest comes from the general tax fund — which includes taxes paid by people who don’t drive. (By the way, that federal gas tax — which costs 18.4¢ per gallon of gas — hasn’t increased since 1993, which threatens to leave America’s highways badly underfunded.) Compare that with the much maligned Amtrak, which covers 85% of its operating costs with ticket revenue.

(MORE: As New York City’s Bike Share Fixes Failures, It Needs to Cope With Success)

The fact that we’re increasing the commuter benefit for parking while cutting it for transit is even crazier, since parking gets all sorts of invisible subsidies, like city regulations that require developers to provide parking spaces when building new housing. “Free” parking on residential streets — common even in cities as congested as New York — actually exacts a huge cost on society in gasoline burned and pollution emitted. Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, found that in one 15-block commercial district in Los Angeles, drivers trolling for spots were responsible for an extra 950,000 vehicle miles driver per year — equivalent to 38 trips around the earth — and an extra 738 tons of carbon dioxide. The last thing we should be doing is further subsidizing parking.

But putting all that aside, it’s still in the interests of drivers to see the public-transit tax credit kept higher. The more commuters who switch to transit, the fewer of them there are clogging the roads. A recent study looked at the effects of the 2003 strike by L.A. transit workers, and found that the average highway delay increased by 47% when transit service ceased. A 2010 study found that without public transit, travelers would have suffered an additional 785 million hours of delay. And a healthy commuter tax credit does encourage commuters to try transit, which has been on the increase around the country, with 10.5 billion trips recorded in 2012, up 1.8% from the previous year.

Letting the public-transit credit drop is in absolutely no one’s interests — and in fact, the program enjoys broad, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. But the credit is tied up in a larger bill that contains a grab bag of other tax credits that have either expired or are set to expire, and Congress was unable to act before the Christmas recess. An attempt by New York Senator Charles Schumer to restore the full transit credit in a separate bill — the Commuter Benefits Equity Act — failed as well. Congress will likely try to restore the credit in the new year, but even if that’s successful, trying to calculate the retroactive savings will be a headache. But as members of Congress sit in traffic — the Washington area has the worst congestion in the country — at least they’ll have plenty of time to think about it.

MORE: The Lessons From New York City’s Flooded Subways

An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of funding for U.S. roads coming from gas taxes, tolls or other fees levied on drivers. It is 32%, not 50.7%.

67 comments
VernonHuffman
VernonHuffman

Out here in Corvallis, OR, the buses are fare free. Locals supported a tax hike to encourage ridership because it is a more efficient way to pay for a service that benefits all.

We're considering expanding the ADA ride program to cover everybody. Then we would have shared jitneys, appropriately sized, demand managed vehicles, aided by modern routing software. Our long term goal is to have only professional drivers on our streets, the elimination of private automobiles. Cars are bad technology.

Personally, I'm finding the federal government increasingly irrelevant to my life. I've already refused to pay federal taxes until they close the Pentagon. As more of us learn to grow our own food, pedal our own bikes, and care for our neighbors, we're falling comfortably below taxable income levels. Voluntary simplicity rocks!

psteinberg
psteinberg

I agree with @LovNRDCthat the best way to change human behavior of driving alone (SOV - Single Occupancy Vehicle) is to eliminate FREE parking.  The pushback from congress for expanding the Commuter Tax Benefit is the cost to the Federal government.  Incentives like free football size field parking lots at our suburban offices, and Federal subsidies, will only reinforce our SOV (Single Occupancy Vehicle) behaviors.  Remove these perks, and people will start thinking about Alternative Transportation options (public transit, vanpool, carpool), and we can solve our congestion and emission problems at the same time.  Disclaimer: I work for Car.ma which promotes real-time carpooling through Federally funding pilots in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Barbara, Austin and Washington DC.   

LovNRDC
LovNRDC

A better way to reduce the deficit is to eliminate the parking tax benefit while keeping the transit one. That would make a much bigger dent in it, and provide congestion, energy and environmental benefits to boot.

ksalicornia@yahoo.com
ksalicornia@yahoo.com

It all goes back to the fact that most congressmen (and women) are in effect cronies of the big oil companies, so it is not a surprise that the oils companies are the biggest winners here: less money for public transport, and more money for parking!

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

The public transit tax credit benefits big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Why should the rest of the country have to subsidize your transportation costs? We aren't your slaves.

BorisIII
BorisIII

I'd say one problem is most people live in the country, towns and small cities.  Without bad traffic.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

Typical Repubs bs. Anything to harm the public interest while promoting self-indulgence for the better off. Will this country never wake up or grow up at least to realize enlightened self-interest, and boot these parasites out?

usernamehere
usernamehere

Is it so unfathomably ridiculous that even the most conservative person doesn't want to invest in public transportation. Fewer people on the road means fewer people in front of you on the highway, fewer bad things like smog and spending on its resulting respiratory illnesses, and bigger strides towards foreign fuel independence. Why wouldn't conservatives want to spend fewer hours of their lives on the road? If they really cared about the health of the American family, they would invest in saving people time in traffic so they could be at home more with their spouses and children.


But I guess yelling about busses and trains being welfare for poor black people is easier when you represent hateful bigots. Bravo.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Hear's a thought..... maybe subsidies are just bad ideas.  If we want people to drive less, just raise the tax on gasoline. Given the proper incentives, people will choose the appropriate means of transportation for them.  Too often, subsidies are used as rewards or paybacks by politicians. 

kmr
kmr

I am so glad that JimBobTooth is so wealthy or so powerful that he sees nothing wrong in the policies promoted by the Tea Party and the Republicans, especially in the House.  Of course, his use of unnecessary pejoratives (idiots) and his misspellings ("an by" should be "and buy") casts doubt as to how upper class this man really is.  To clarify for JimBobTooth, I don't hate successful people.  But I find it inhumane, inhuman, and frankly un-American to continue to support the use of tax dollars to help the extremely wealthy, whether it is subsidies for oil companies and corporate farms, lower tax rates on the income of hedge fund operators, or a multitude of other support, at the expense of the ability of middle and low income Americans to earn enough to support their families, or the unemployed to survive (no they are not using unemployment insurance to watch Oprah and pop bon-bons) or even have enough help from their government to survive (food stamps or housing subsidies for instance).  Their lack of awareness of these people's plight in life or, even worse, their complete disregard of the needs of fellow Americans and human beings goes beyond sad to despicable.  Is there really a CEO who is doing 300 times more work than his or her average employee (not lowest paid employee).  I find that unbelievable.  


No JimBobTooth, I don't hate successful people.  I do hate their behavior in the face of that success.

JimBobTooth
JimBobTooth

Man you guys are idiots.  Taxes for the wealthy have gone up by extremes this year.  Do you really think that charging a couple of extra bucks for mass transit is going to force people to run out an by cars?  Half of the commuters on the new York trains are heading to wall street. I like how this is "congress'" fault... even though the democratic senate and president passed the budget.  It's really unfortunate how uneducated so many Americans are about the way this stuff really works and they are looking for a reason to hate successful people... that's just petty jealousy.

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

The real story here isn't what the government is cutting in the way of a tax deduction or the environmental impact this reduction will incur.  The real story here is another attempt at cutting spending by way of a line item, one-at-a-time, methodology.

The real failure of our government is in the bi-partisan schism that keeps both parties firmly entrenched in their respective corners.  Such is the case with the budget. 

For years they have kicked the can down the road and scabbed together a string of crisis managed budget formulas that have cost the taxpayers more because of the borrow and spend policies that are perpetuated as a result and because of a lack of confidence in the business community.  For years they have failed to come up with a comprehensive budget plan that would cut spending, increase revenue and start paying off the debt.  Such a plan exists already if only the two sides would recognize the fact that we have run out of time, that something positive and proactive needs to be done and that both sides have good ideas and valid concerns they can bring to the table to offset hurting the nation again.

Cutting subsidies for commuting is but one example of the continuing pain inflicted on We the People because our so called representatives cannot see beyond their petty partisan noses.

DavidG
DavidG

'There’s an enormous public benefit to supporting public transit' - Haha! Public benefit is the last thing that Republicans care about. They are only interested in tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the rest of us.


If you tie a trillions dollars in tax cuts for the rich to subsidizing public transportation, you will get plenty of public transit systems any day.

jOhan
jOhan

More republican non-sense. Anything which benefits the economy is rejected. That is trickle down economics at work.

jimbom1234
jimbom1234

So basically, Congress is trying to create more traffic, and more pollution.

George286
George286

Pointing out that this Congress is stupid is pretty obtuse.  Yes, cut, cut, cut and whatever you do don't tax the wealthy is pretty much their gospel.  The Republicans DON'T CARE, they want to hobble government as an end in itself.  If they had their way the federal government would be comprised of a volunteer army and a regressive sales tax and that would pretty much be it.  Libertarians, Don't Tread On Me, get it?  Obama is engaged in a process of triage, transportation or student loans or food stamps, etc. and this one was thrown under the wheels of the bus.

humtake
humtake

There really is only one takeaway from this entire article...STOP HAVING KIDS.  This country is already too crowded.  Stop breeding.  Please.

DrPotatohead
DrPotatohead

I loathe taking public transit and I will never live in a city that punishes drivers.  I am an adult under 5 feet tall.  Being crammed into a subway or bus at rush hour feels like being buried alive.

WhackyWaco
WhackyWaco

This is an unfair subsidy because only a select few are able to collect.

hs2010
hs2010

I'm appalled to find writing this low in caliber on Time. I could only make it two paragraphs because I could not continue reading.

"Oh, and researchers have found evidence that long commutes are linked to obesity, neck pain, insomnia and divorce. So you’d think that Congress would want to take steps to ease the pain of commuting, perhaps by diverting drivers to public transit, which alleviates traffic and helps the environment." -- Promoting the use of public transit, as you state, alleviates traffic and helps the environment. It does not shorten your commute unless the bus goes directly from your house to your job like your car does. If it was the fastest way to work then those people are probably already taking public transit. Your two sentences have nothing to do with each other as you would mislead the reader to believe.

"That could cost the heaviest users more than $1,000 a year." -- No it couldn't. You subtracted the dollar difference in allowed deduction, not the after-tax amount paid, as another user already pointed out.

When you have to rely on falsehoods and misleading writing to make your case, then I'm forced to believe that you have no legitimate argument to make.

RDProsperity
RDProsperity

@VernonHuffmanWe're considering a move to Corvallis, actually (to study at Oregon State), and one of the big appeals is the free public transportation.  Honestly, a lot more services could be provided better by the public sector and be paid for by tax dollars, and particularly services that are definitely local, like transportation and utilities, can be more effectively be handled by municipal and state governments.  Still, there are some things, like education and health care, that would be better handled by the federal government given the state-to-state mobility that is increasingly becoming a part of our lives in this day and age.

bakeralex1983
bakeralex1983

@mahmoodadvocate The parking tax credit went up, so those of you in the Midwest who are ruining the environment by driving everywhere are taken care of. Dummy. 

laurabg7
laurabg7

@mary.waterton Did you read any of this article, at all?  The more people are driving, the more more wear and tear there is on the roads, which is fixed with FEDERAL TAX MONEY.  Federal taxes are paid by everyone, not just New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  Isn't it better to encourage public transportation which benefits the country in so many ways, as mentioned in this article (oh wait, you didn't read it), if the country is paying taxes anyway?

You are incredibly ignorant, or at the very least, illiterate.  

bakeralex1983
bakeralex1983

@mary.waterton  The parking tax credit went up, so those of you in the Midwest who are ruining the environment by driving everywhere are taken care of. Dummy. 


WesleyNemes
WesleyNemes

@SamuelClemens Nope, sorry but the propaganda machine is unstoppable and leading people against their own good. Most believe the media is liberal when in fact it is just the opposite. 

WesleyNemes
WesleyNemes

@usernamehere Because conservative means preserving the status quo. They have no interest in advancement and progress.

ApollosLair
ApollosLair

@kmr Kmr, the solution is simple. Why dont you go out and make a few million dollars of your own and lead by example? 

jess60901
jess60901

@kmr JimBobTooth is a Blowhard JerkOff so don't let let him annoy you.  Why give him what he wants?  Meanwhile, HAPPY NEW YEAR to you--all! 

WesleyNemes
WesleyNemes

@JimBobTooth I am  doing a statistics research. I need this for my school paper. Are you a Christian? or have any other religious affiliation?

WesleyNemes
WesleyNemes

@AlphaJuliette Even the IMF retracted their position on austerity after analyzing what happened to countries that heavily implemented it. 

WesleyNemes
WesleyNemes

@humtake But big business needs drones so they will install their reps to fight for making birth control illegal and keep the borders unsecured and not legalize anyone that enters (even more low cost labor) while they  convince you they are fighting for you.

George286
George286

@humtakepeople should probably kill themselves to lessen their impact too, preferably by starving so as not to use up valuable foodstuffs and environmental impact, and soon because they are using up our oxygen and transportation systems.  Perhaps a 0 children now policy, we can do better than China's policy.

But probably the biggest problem with zero-population growth is that only people who are educated and intelligent enough to hear the message are likely to comply, the rest will just go on breeding.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@DrPotatohead How does having ME take public transport punish YOU as a driver?  If anything, it makes your drive more pleasant, since MY car is off the road.

JerichoWhiskey
JerichoWhiskey

@DrPotatohead People using public transit means less cars on the road creating traffic jams and other problems for you.

LeahPetersen
LeahPetersen

@DrPotatoheadWhat a ridiculous reason to take a side on such a huge and complex issue as this. Don't want to ride the bus? Then don't. That doesn't mean it isn't better for YOU if more people do. If the city subsidizes the buses, more people will ride them and then they won't be on the road in your way.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@WhackyWaco Unless you live a long ways away from even a minor city (which only a tiny percent of our populous does), you've got access to at least public buses.  I fail to see how "only a select few" can be able to take advantage of public transport, if they wanted to or had to.  Of course, you can argue that the public transit which exists in most places is so lousy that the choice of taking it stinks -- but then, a lot of that is because there's no money to build better, more functional, more desirable, more useful public transport, isn't it?

FrankBlank
FrankBlank

@hs2010Your last line is a bit harsh.  It would invalidate 98% what republickans have said during the last 40 years.  And everything they are currently saying.  And, yes, 50% of what democrats have said as well. 

Biteme_nfs
Biteme_nfs

@bakeralex1983I'm pretty sure the people they are referring to this being unfair, don't have Public transport available to them. Learn something, go somewhere that is different than where you live.

WesleyNemes
WesleyNemes

@LeahPetersen @DrPotatohead Or invest in infrastructure might work better. Our previous generations did (yeah, they weren't cheap like us) it provided many jobs, expended economy and build strong middle class. I visited Germany recently and they have double decked freeways in the cities where there is no way to add lanes. Why can't we do that? 

George286
George286

@coolerthanyou4@WhackyWaco Yes, pretty much all of them.

humtake
humtake

@FrankBlank@hs2010 Nah, it doesn't invalidate it.  It actually just proves once again Democrats are just as good at ignoring reality as Republicans are at making it up.

bakeralex1983
bakeralex1983

@bakeralex1983 The transportation they have available to them is receiving a larger tax subsidy. So if it's unfair, it is unfair in their favor. 


Also, nobody forced them to move out to the middle of nowhere where there is no support for mass transit and where (as a result) their carbon imprints are on average about three times greater than city dwellers.