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.