Parking lot sign yellow

The cost of free parking

Did you ever think about that football field size parking lot your employer provides you to park your car during work?  Every parking space is >100 square feet of lost opportunity for commercial, residential or open space. This TIME magazine article by Bryan Walsh on why Congress is screwing public transit users. The recent reduction of the Commuter Tax Benefit has stirred debate from transportation officials and policy makers.

Under the US Internal Revenue Code section 132(a), the qualified transportation benefits is one of the eight types of statutory employee benefits (also known as fringe benefits) that are excluded from gross income. The two types of qualified transportation benefits are (1) transit passes and van pooling ($130/mo beginning 1/1/2014) and (2) parking (up to $250/mo).[1] Bike commuters can also be reimbursed for certain expenses (up to $20/mo).

Every parking space is a lost opportunity for commercial, residential or open space – Paul Steinberg

Brian Walsh correctly notes, “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.”  Under the Commuter Tax Benefit, parking subsidies are actually increased to $250 per year for those that claim carpooling or van pooling. However, there are few checks and balances in place to verify proper use of these benefits short of applying for a placard, making a pledge, or the paper logs submitted during 1 week a year audits. With the plethora of GPS tracking applications it would be easy to track verifiable carpooling or vanpooling trips that would most certainly reduce these parking perks, but that still doesn’t address the flaw in the subsidy in the first place.

Congress spends $2.2 billion annual on another program which courages reductions in emissions called the CMAQ Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant. This grant is available to areas with poor air quality, where SOVs (Single Occupancy Vehicles) contribute 75% of the pollution.  That Commuter Tax Benefit for parking is almost twice as high as the transit benefit that was just reduced, and in direct contradiction to billions of CMAQ dollars spent to reduce emissions. One would think American’s love affair with the automobile would be fading after decades of decency upon fossil fuels from countries that support terrorist organizations, after the OPEC embargoes of the 1970’s, and the recent uprisings of the Arab Spring.

Full free parking lot America’s highways are deteriorating, every state in the nation has a list of repairs that far exceeds the money available from the gas tax to make repairs, and the parking benefit is simply a dinosaur benefit that should long been extinct.  If congress doesn’t have the public support to increase the gas tax, then why not start removing the many driving tax breaks on the books – starting with the Commuter Tax Benefit for parking. By eliminated this benefit, congress would not only help leverage the billions of dollars spent on improving the environment, and have more than enough left over to refund the Transit benefit back to pre-2014 levels.

With fewer perks and subsidies, maybe more Americans would stop driving alone, and try transit alternatives like the bus, train, carpool or vanpool. We might finally have a fighting chance to slow the growth of congestion and get a tax refund in the way of a faster commute. It’s time to end the policy of free parking, because it only turns more parks into parking lots.

It’s time to end free parking, and start converting parking lots back into parks