Time for a D.C. Congestion Tax?
London has it, and traffic in the city is down by nearly half. New York is considering it, wowed by the possibility of thinning out the city's choking congestion. Now, Washington is talking about imposing a congestion tax, a daily fee for bringing a car into the District's downtown.
Mayor Adrian Fenty raised the issue in an interview on WTOP radio Friday, and immediately the debate began.
London is the primo example of congestion charging. To drive into central London, you must pay 8 pounds a day, or about $16. This has proven to be enough of a disincentive to take a car into central city that congestion is down by 26 percent since the program was launched in 2003. The tax raises about 122 million pounds a year--$244 million--most of which is spent on improving bus service in the restricted zone. Independent studies say the congestion tax has had a neutral effect on retail and other business in the central city zone and no adverse impact on traffic on the roads immediately surrounding the congestion zone.
The London program has been such a success that the mayor considers it "the only thing I've done in my political life that turned out better than I hoped."
New York City is considering such a move, and the early reaction from New Yorkers is an almost exactly even divide over whether it's the right thing to do (but a majority of New Yorkers agree that congestion pricing would bring great benefits to the air and to traffic levels.) (Side note: Sweden has moved to restore a congestion tax in Stockholm, and the shift in public opinion there is fascinating. While a majority opposed the tax before it was imposed, after it was in operation for a while, polls started to show a majority now favors the tax because of the benefits of reduced traffic and cleaner air.)
The need in Washington is clear: Washington's suburbs have the second longest average commuting time in the nation, after New York. Maryland commuters sit through an average of 30.8 minutes of traffic on the way to work; in Virginia, Prince William County drivers suffer in an average commute of more than 40 minutes.
And the alternatives necessary for non-drivers exist here: Washington has the third-highest usage of public transit, after New York and San Francisco. But there are very serious questions about capacity with Metro--as any rider knows, the system is straining to handle the crowds it already carries.
But Washington is different from London or New York in that a congestion tax here would serve more than one purpose: It would not only be a way to control the flow of traffic in the city, but it would also be an answer to the single greatest fiscal frustration facing the District--its inability to impose a commuter tax on the hundreds of thousands of suburbanites who earn their living in the city but contribute nothing to its coffers.
"You do have a lot of commuters who use our infrastructure and don't pay any taxes," Fenty said on the radio. A congestion tax would give the District a way to recoup some of its costs in catering to those commuters--street maintenance, utilities, emergency services, etc.
Fenty was non-committal about whether he will really push for a congestion tax. Obviously, he's going to want to put this to a study first. And suburban politicians aren't likely to embrace the idea for fear that their constituents might get all riled up about it. Powerful interests would surely oppose the notion--hotels, parking magnates, possibly the major arts and cultural organizations. But the evidence from London indicates that other than the parking folks, those business interests have nothing to fear from congestion taxing, which, by the way, are only in effect from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and only on weekdays, so nightlife and cultural and sports events are not affected at all.
So, is it time for a D.C. congestion tax?
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