At a time when state and local governments are looking for ways to deal with traffic congestion, tight budgets and environmental challenges, we’re a bit puzzled by a bill proposed in Annapolis that would give long-distance commuters a tax break.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), would provide a credit against a person’s state income tax to help offset some of the costs of commuting at least 40 miles round trip to work each day.

Ellis’ logic, which makes some sense when applied in a vacuum, is that it’s costly and frustrating for drivers who have to make long commutes to and from their jobs. “You are burning a lot of fuel,” Ellis told our reporter Ryan Marshall.

There’s no doubt about that. Some 3 million Marylanders commute to work every day, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. The average one-way commute is about 33 minutes. That’s likely about two or three gallons of gas per day for the average car and probably a bit more for an older car or SUV.

We understand that it’s not always easy to find a job near where you live. This is particularly true in the more rural parts of the state. In Ellis’ Charles County, there are only two major roads to handle the 77 percent of its employed adults who travel into Prince George’s County every day to work. Adequate public transportation isn’t available there.

The scenario is fairly similar to what we experience in Frederick County, where about 45 percent of local residents commute to neighboring counties, the District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to our previous reporting.

But rewarding commuters for their long-distance driving is somewhat akin to giving discounts on fast food to people on a diet. Neither is likely to make the situation any better.

From a more global, public policy perspective, such legislation seems to run counter to the state’s more recent goals of encouraging mass transit where available and carpooling where it is not. At an estimated cost of nearly $357 million per year, we think the money could be better spent.

Tax subsidies are often used as carrots to encourage a type of behavior. For instance, governments routinely provide subsidies as a way of attracting businesses to grow or relocate. That makes sense on many levels as a way of expanding the economy. But subsidizing commuting would simply encourage more people to drive more, and that’s not the road we should be taking.

Instead, we’d rather see the projected cost of a commuter tax break applied to programs that would improve mass transit services such as bus rapid transit and encourage ride-sharing as well.

None of this will happen overnight. And we freely acknowledge that some parts of the state — Charles County being one — have next to nothing when it comes to alternative transit options. And when those options come in the form of buses, we recognize that even a full bus won’t make a dent in traffic woes.

That’s why projects such as widening Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway are inevitable for now. But at least the I-270 Corridor Transit Plan is considering whether a monorail will be included in the project. Making that part of the plan would be a step that tries to deal with congestion and pollution.

A commuter tax break would take the state in a costly, wrong direction. We hope the General Assembly puts the brakes on it.

(11) comments

Jeepers11md

If our Maryland Law Makers get off their rears and place speed cameras on the road that would generate a lot of money to widen the road I see it every day traveling 270 people speeding just to get one car ahead especially I feel sorry for the truckers on Maryland roads, they have to go by the law or loss their driving rights, why doesn't Maryland crack down on the idiot drivers and enforce the laws that a few drive by? Money could come from the fines that are issued against those ignorant drivers and teach them a lesson but yet our lawmakers turn their heads and ignore the major problem

stjohn42

A commuter tax break is a bad idea, and I say this as a guy with a 100_ mile round trip commute. The state already subsidizes my commute by paying for the roads we all take. It makes no sense to double-subsidize it and encourage even more people to clog the roads.

Lev928

Finally, a recent FNP editorial that somewhat coincides with common sense and reality. They left out the part where many of these commuters MOVE from where they live and work to a different lower-taxed, newly over-developed area (ie: lower Frederick County). No, there should be NO tax break for these people. They made a selfish decision for financial gain in the first place. Why should resident taxpayers statewide suffer to support them? You move further from your job, you commute and pay for it. Period.

FCPS-Principal

We give tax breaks to business commuters at the drop of a hat. The cost of every mile a business owner drives in his phony baloney business vehicle is a tax deduction. Yet we cry like hyenas when someone proposes a tax break for the miles driven by commuters to and from work.

sevenstones1000

Give a tax break to commuters who use mass transit only. Make all lanes on 270 toll lanes for single occupancy car drivers during rush hours. Watch how quickly those drivers figure out how to leave their cars at home and use transit.

FCPS-Principal

What transit?

Jleftwich

A few billion is collected via MD’s gas tax which goes into the transportation fund, yet the solutions we come up with to tackle the problem of traffic are archaic: widen highways, implement tolls, bus on shoulder (that works fine until there is no shoulder because of a breakdown or construction).

If that money is just sitting there, why not give it back to taxpayers?

https://wtop.com/dc-transit/2020/01/maryland-lawmaker-proposes-tax-credit-for-those-with-long-commutes-no-access-to-transit/

collinsm65

For a person with a long commute, it may not be a matter of them choosing that distance. Not everybody can live close due to stupidly high housing costs or job availability in some areas that’s just not conducive to anyone living close. It would reduce turnover for companies who lose people who can’t take the stress and financial burden of facing a massive volume of traffic daily...which adds to medical issues too. How about offsetting it with a tax to run the massive amounts of dump trucks I see every day on the road that are put there by the nonstop building and developing of places like Urbana, Mount Airy and the like?

jsklinelga

It is nice to see a proposed bill generate bi-partisan agreement.. Even if it is on how poorly thought out is the legislation;

Had to laugh. " Instead, we’d rather see the projected cost of a commuter tax break applied to programs that would improve mass transit services such as bus rapid transit and encourage ride-sharing as well." A bit of AOC logic?

Seriously. If climate change is not a hoax, nor merely a political campaign slogan where a great urgency demands action, than the congested, huge carbon contributing commute seems the ideal place to attack the problem. Why not a carbon tax on commuters? If not climate change arguments will continue to fall on deaf ears.

collinsm65

I really hope you don’t think climate change is a hoax. Far from it.

DickD

"Had to laugh. " Instead, we’d rather see the projected cost of a commuter tax break applied to programs that would improve mass transit services such as bus rapid transit and encourage ride-sharing as well." A bit of AOC logic?" You have lost your mind, Jim!

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