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For a brawl over money, the debate about the District’s long-desired commuter tax has some lofty overtones. As the D.C. Council and the Virginia congressional delegation trade denunciations, they invoke the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, raising bedrock questions about representative government and the purpose of the federal enclave. It’s very impressive and historical stuff.
But let’s move the discussion out of civics class, now, and put it on the road. I am a commuter. Five days a week, I wake up in my well-shaded, low-crime Maryland suburb, hop into my late-model automobile, and head south into the District. At the end of the day, I turn around and go home. Every 10 times I make the round trip, I take a paycheck home with me.
The D.C. government says this is intolerable. I am a freeloader. A parasite on the body politic. I take, take, take from the suffering District, and I give nothing in return.
They’re right. Under the current system, the money I earn in D.C. gets shipped off to Annapolis. From there, it gets funneled back to the absurdly prosperous Montgomery County, which uses it to pay for concierge service in the middle schools or something.
So, please, tax me. If the District wins the highly publicized lawsuit it filed last week and secures the right to tax commuters, I’ll be glad to fill out the paperwork. Who am I to stand in the way of fairness and justice?
Do keep this in mind, though: Once I’m a tax-paying D.C. commuter, you folks are going to have to start improving my commute. And you’ve got a lot of work to do. James Madison may have been a political visionary for the ages, but he didn’t have to drive down 16th Street every morning.
That’s the thing about us suburban taxpayers, you see: Unlike the beaten-down quasi-citizens of the District, we’re used to getting something in return for our money. Around my neighborhood, people go door-to-door petitioning for speed humps. When the power cuts out after thunderstorms, they petition PEPCO for better wires.
Through decades of colonial subjugation to the feds, D.C. residents have learned to put up with colonial-quality levels of service. For a good year now, the District has been leisurely working its way toward rebuilding a mile-long stretch of 16th Street. While the District was busy with the first two lanes of that project, MoCo took a similar paving project on Veirs Mill Road from start to finish.
The District streets have come quite a ways, it’s true, since the axle-busting Barry era and the cable-trench battlefield of the early Williams years. That’s not saying much. As long as the commute is free, I hesitate to criticize; I am still a parasite, after all, and nobody asks his tapeworm what it wants for dinner.
Luckily for me, though, D.C. is looking for a more equitable relationship. And equity, by definition, goes both ways. Here’s the deal: I’ll start paying you for the right to drive into the District. And you’ll start making damn sure I’m able to drive into the District.
Got it? As a tax-paying commuter, I do not want to waste 20 minutes on a rainy morning because somebody’s Saab broke down in the curb lane and the District can’t find a tow truck to move it out of the way. I do not want to do the Connecticut Avenue Slalom, veering between cars stopped for a left turn and cars illegally double-parked on the right. There should be cops stationed on the curb, waiting to slap a big, instant fine on anyone who flips on the blinkers to run inside for a quick gelato.
My 10-mile drive to work is divided roughly in half between Maryland and District streets. It takes me just about 15 minutes each morning to hit the D.C. line. After that, who knows? Maybe there’ll be a flag crew on 16th Street as that construction job inches forward. That’ll add 10 minutes. Maybe there’ll be one car parked in the right lane, adding a five-minute bottleneck at the bridge over Rock Creek. Maybe a dump truck and a moving van will be in a head-to-head standoff on Champlain Street.
The only thing that’s predictable is that traffic will be a mess, and it will usually be something that could have been prevented, if only the District had cared to attack the problem. Why is Columbia Road locked up at 16th Street every day at 6 p.m.? Because every day at 6 p.m., nobody from the police department has bothered to put on some white gloves and start directing traffic. My commuter-taxpayer dollars had better not be paying D.C. cops to guard the Agriculture Department. If the Federal Vatican wants protection, they can take it out of my federal income tax.
Those are really just side points, though. I will bless the commuter taxwelcome the commuter taxpay extra commuter tax, even. All the District really needs to do is let me park.
That’s right: I send you the money; you send me a parking sticker. That’s the kind of regional solidarity I’m looking for. While I sit in my office earning cash for the District’s coffers, my car sits at the curb, unmolested by Lovely Rita.
Or you could build me a municipal garage. I’m flexible.
This must sound awfully demanding to D.C. residents. But we commuters have some room to make demands. According to the figures the commuter-tax forces are floating, we’re supposed to represent as much as $1.4 billion in revenue per year. AndI speak for my little sliver of that stack of billswe’ve hardly been collecting our theoretical money’s worth.
Let’s look at the economics again: The Washington Post explained that the people suing to impose a commuter tax say that District residents currently “pay more for services and conveniencessuch as police and roadsthat benefit residents and commuters alike.” True. Services such as police and roads…and what else? Anyone? Oh, right: the most lethally apathetic emergency medical services in the country. Gosh, thanks.
I’m not coming to town to get methadone or special education or public housing. I’m coming here to work. I pee a few times a day in the office restroom, so I guess that puts some wear and tear on the sewers. But my employer covers that by paying the water bill.
“This isn’t a payment to use my roads,” Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans says. “This isn’t a payment to use up my traffic lights.” The point, he says, is simple self-government: the right of the District to collect tax on people who work here, the way every other jurisdiction does. If I commuted to Pennsylvania, Evans tells me, the Keystone State wouldn’t give me a parking space, either.
But why should the District stoop to Pennsylvania’s standard of behavior? This city ought to know how it feels to spend money and get nothing back. Does D.C. really want to create yet another form of second-class citizenship?
The dollars aren’t at issue. As tax backers point out, commuters would able to deduct District taxes from our state payments and break even. The real question is whether we remain estranged from D.C. lifealone and fuming in our carsor get the chance to move smoothly through our shared community. You would think, by now, that the District had seen enough of gridlock. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Christiane Grauert.