City on a Hill: Capitol-izing on commuters

March 4, 2010

After two snow storms crippled the District, MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews had a question to pose on Hardball: “Why can’t the people who run this city deal with February?” Matthews went on to say D.C. “looked like Siberia without the Siberian discipline” and complained about—horrors!—needing an SUV to reach his studio.

Matthews’s commute was especially long because he lives in Montgomery County, Md. That means that, whatever you think of his argument that the District should always be prepared for once-in-a-century snow, the tax burden of that preparation wouldn’t fall on Matthews.

Like the estimated 300,000 other commuters from Virginia and Maryland who work in the District, Matthews doesn’t pay local income tax in Washington on the income he earns here. They don’t support the many services they enjoy while working in D.C., including police, road maintenance, and yes, snow removal. It’s time for D.C. to keep some of the money generated in the city with a commuter tax, in the form of a tax levied on all incomes earned in the District.

Without taxing commuters, District residents face a massive tax burden. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that D.C. had almost 600,000 residents last summer. In 2005, city officials estimated that 300,000 workers commute to the city from the suburbs. That means Washington residents are forced to subsidize government services used by a group half their size.

The idea of a commuter tax, catnip to District residents tired of subsidizing their suburban colleagues, isn’t without precedent. Philadelphia taxes income earned by suburbanites, and New York City had a commuter tax during the 1990s.

Like many good ideas in this town, it’s threatened by the Home Rule Act, a pact made with that devil otherwise known as Congress in 1973.  Home Rule essentially gives Congress veto power over any new District laws and has prevented the District government from imposing a commuter tax.  In 2004, District activists tried to impose a commuter tax anyway, but their attempt was rejected by a federal court.

Until Washington gets true congressional representation, the outlook for a commuter tax is bleak. Someday, though, D.C. might actually receive the estimated $1.4 billion it loses annually in tax revenue from commuters, and that would truly send a thrill up every resident’s leg.

Want to play some real Hardball? E-mail Will at

City on a Hill is a bi-weekly column about D.C. news and politics.


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