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Back in 2009, when enrollments were booming, I wrote a piece in which I explained why I hate parking as an issue. There’s never enough of it, and everybody is opposed to adding more. It’s a no-win.

From the vantage point of 2018, I can see that I didn’t forecast sustained enrollment decline as a solution to a parking squeeze. Until recently, the relaxation of the parking squeeze on many campuses was a minor, but real, silver lining against the dark cloud of enrollment decline.  

Now, even that silver lining is in jeopardy.

Apparently, the federal tax bill passed late last year includes a provision requiring colleges that provide free parking to pay taxes on it.  

The provenance of the rule was silly, but if one were so inclined, there’s a far less stupid argument for it. By making driving artificially cheap, the argument goes, we get more of it. If we want drivers to take other options more seriously, such as taking the bus, then we need to ensure that they pay the full social cost of driving. That way we could reduce the collective carbon footprint of commuting.

There’s something to be said for that, but that’s not what happened here. I know that because the same bill requiring taxing free parking also requires taxing discounts on mass transit. If you drive, that gets taxed. If you take the bus, that gets taxed, too. It has nothing to do with reducing greenhouse gases.

In the higher education world, this will hit commuter colleges the hardest, since they were built -- literally -- on the assumption of mass driving.  

From what I can tell, and I’m not a tax attorney, merely charging for parking may not be sufficient to evade the tax. We’d have to charge at least as much as the parking costs to provide and maintain; if we charged less, I believe, the difference would be considered a taxable subsidy.  So I don’t think that charging everyone a dollar a year would make it go away.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

At a really basic level, such a tax would be unspeakably regressive, and would harm access. It wouldn’t matter much at the Amherst Colleges of the world, where freshmen aren’t allowed to have cars, and they live in dorms on campus.  But it would matter a great deal here.

Worse, any fee-based parking system requires enforcement, which is a deadweight cost. One of the joys of working at a community college with completely free parking, having worked at two that charged students for it, is not having to hear about parking fines and appeals.  If you require students and employees to buy permits to park, then you need to pay people to go around the lots looking for current permits and ticketing cars without them. In this context, I’m sympathetic to cries of “administrative bloat.” Parking enforcement requires people patrolling lots, as well as people administering fines, collecting fines, and hearing appeals of fines. It may be cheaper just to pay the tax, itself a deadweight cost.

And that’s not even counting the ill will generated by parking tickets. It’s noticeable.

If we want to force drivers to internalize the social cost of driving, we should ensure cheap, reliable, high-quality alternatives to driving. If we aren’t going to do that -- and I don’t see any signs of it -- then this idea is just punitive. We have students for whom any new cost, whether in the form of a parking ticket or a parking fee, is a real barrier to continued enrollment. And that’s not even mentioning employees, for whom frequent parking is a de facto condition of employment. You’d think that would be an argument for making the cost of parking tax-deductible, but no.

The great parking crunch of 2009 was an unavoidable side effect of an otherwise good thing. This law is a self-inflicted wound, attacking one of the few upsides of the enrollment decline of the last several years.  It’s silly, perverse, and entirely unnecessary. As much as I hate parking as an issue, parking taxes are even worse. In a setting in which every dollar is precious, spending salaries on parking enforcement while continuing to shrink the faculty is absurd.  No, thanks.

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