Congress Gives Itself More Free Parking Than Its Own Rules Allow

How much are these free parking spots worth? Probably more than the $250 parking benefit Congress allows. Photo: ##http://www.jmt.com/project-portfolio/us-senate-parking-lot-study/##JMT##
How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo: JMT

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.

Here’s the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it’s shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That’s a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It’s hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we’re talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don’t like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

To figure out the market value of those spots, it would help to be able to check the rates at adjacent private lots. The problem is: There are no adjacent private lots.

According to SpotHero, there are no available monthly parking spots within a mile of the Capitol. The closest one — about a 20 minute walk to either the House side or the Senate side — costs $270.

##http://spothero.com/search?latitude=38.8918612&longitude=-77.00557809999998#facilityrates?type=monthly&startdate=11-20-2014&lat=38.896603769899265&lng=-77.00586241415556&rlat=38.8918612&rlng=-77.0055781&zoom=15##SpotHero## shows how far you'd have to walk -- and how much you'd have to pay -- for a monthly parking spot near the Capitol.
SpotHero shows how far a Senate employee would have to walk — and how much she’d have to pay — for a monthly parking spot near the Capitol.

There are some cheaper options a little farther away, but the cost of parking more than a mile from the destination is almost inconsequential. Given the extreme scarcity of parking near the Capitol, which employs and attracts tens of thousands of people daily, you can bet that on-site parking is worth significantly more than faraway options. Moreover, if so many employees didn’t get free parking on the Capitol grounds, how would that affect demand, and therefore parking rates, at surrounding lots?

According to the law, if an employee is provided with free parking in excess of the allowable limit, the difference should be reported as taxable income, and the employer would have to pay all the normal employment taxes (Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, etc.) on that portion.

IRS staff affirm that the value of any fringe benefit is based on the market. Congress can’t just say the parking is worth $250 and call it a day. They have to acknowledge that the benefit they are providing to staff and members is worth the market price. In the case of a reserved parking space directly on the Capitol grounds, it is likely worth much more than the $270 per month established by the adjacent market for parking.

Streets, lots, and garages reserved for US Capitol personnel parking.
Streets, lots, and garages reserved for US Capitol personnel parking.

With this understanding, every staffer and member of Congress receiving free parking is not paying tax on at least $240 in annual compensation — and that is a minimum estimate. Having seen staffers’ pay stubs, I can verify that they are not paying the full value of the parking provided. The failure to report and tax this additional income easily costs the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The scandalous part is that this is a rule that Congress directly controls. If lawmakers wanted to have an even higher limit for free parking, they could debate it and pass an increase. But rather than address the issue, members of Congress simply break their own law.

The Ellipse, just south of the White House, is dedicated to free parking
The Ellipse, just south of the White House, is dedicated to free parking for federal employees. Base map via SpotHero

And it’s not just Congress, of course. Most likely, many other federal, state, local, and private entities are guilty of non-compliance with the $250 limit on free, untaxed parking. In DC alone, there are huge swaths of land, like the Ellipse south of the White House, which serve only as free parking for federal employees. To my knowledge, no one is keeping track of the value of those spaces, or if employees with this benefit should be reporting additional income when it exceeds the limit.

If Congress would keep its own house in order in terms of reporting its taxable parking benefits, it could spark a larger conversation around whether this is a reasonable benefit to have in the first place. So long as the gravy train keeps rolling, and everyone both expects and receives free parking on Capitol Hill, we’re missing an opportunity for meaningful reform of a tax subsidy that undermines the effectiveness of our national transportation policy.

Will Handsfield is a transportation planner in Washington, DC, and has worked on transportation projects at the local, state, and federal levels. Will bike commutes and lives with his wife and two children in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Capitol Hill. 

  • mcas

    Keep in mind for comparison: The increased cost of security checks for parking a car under the Capitol has to be significantly more than any nearby space…

  • Jack Jackson

    Transit in DC sucks. It’s terribly unreliable and expensive. No wonder they drive. I have no problem with this

  • Alex Brideau III

    DC has much better transit than a good number of American cities. Train headways are less than ideal, but the system worked well enough when I lived there and when I’ve visited. Well enough for Congress to not get free parking at least.

  • davistrain

    Representatives and Senators MAKE the laws; they don’t have to obey them. Also, can you imagine a senator riding the bus? As a San Marino resident said about 63 years ago, “Buses are for poor people.”

  • shamelessly
  • J

    Not to mention the rent they could be getting from leasing the land to a developer. The DC housing and office market are both crazy hot– every last bit of vacant land is being developed, and old buildings are being renovated to maximize the amount of rentable space. And yet these lots function exclusively for surface parking. What an unthinkable waste of taxpayer-funded resources.

  • J

    DC is the #3 city in the US for transit use (behind NYC & SF).
    http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s1118.pdf

  • Wash Cycle

    On parking panda, people are renting their spaces in the area for a minimum of $13 a day – about $270 a month.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Thanks for posting! This has been bugging me for years. The most expensive way to get people to work is by private car. So why do they get a $250 monthly tax benefit? In addition you don’t have to provide any paperwork proving it costs you $250 it just gets deducted from you & your companies pay roll tax. I tried getting the $25 monthly cyclist tax benefit for which I would have to provided $25 in monthly expense receipts & my company received no tax benefit. The $130 for transit is accounted for via a payment to a transit card. I would prefer companies had payroll incentives for providing cyclist indoor parking, lockers & showers—and/or $1 per day per commuter cyclist. More discussion here: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2014/11/18/the-parking-tax-benefit-a-7-3-billion-subsidy-for-traffic-congestion/

  • Kristen Tabor

    Governmental employees are exempt from a number of employment laws that regular employees are subject to, and not just federal laws– take a look at the state and local laws for governmental employees as well.

    It’s always bugged me that the bicycle commuter subsidy of $20.00 per month (treated similar to the parking subsidy) cannot be combined with any other qualified transportation fringe benefit. So an employer couldn’t provide the whole suite of qualified transpo fringes such as parking, transit passes, and bicycle commuting, to employees. However, employers can combine parking and transit passes together. It seems very hypocritical, you probably would get a certain portion of employees who would like to combine bicycling with transit but don’t because of this. What a shame.

  • Cali_ExPat

    Kristen,

    In this case, government employees are not exempt from this tax rule. How do I know? I checked with the staff at the IRS who interpret fringe benefits, and it is very much black and white. The reason why I focus on Congress rather than the many other classes of government employees who also get free parking in excess of the limit (US Marshalls, judges, District employees, State Dept, Pentagon, Etc) is that Congress is the body that has the power to change this law if they chose to do so, and is routinely tinkering with the transit portion of the same law.

    They are uniquely hypocritical among the government for abusing free parking.

    (I’m the author, posting using my usual comment alias)

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