Uncle Sam wants you to drive to work. Then again, no he doesn't.

The U.S. government is sending contradictory messages to the American public about driving to work, according to a New York Times story. A federal tax break supports people driving, allowing up to $215 a month in pre-tax dollars to go toward parking at work. But earlier this week the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $848 million in grants that seek to dissuade people from driving in five major cities.

According to the article, Jeffrey M. Zupan, a senior fellow for transportation at the Regional Plan Association in New York, said: "It is perverse. If you’re going to institute pricing measures that are intended to reduce the amount of driving, you don’t want to keep in place other measures that encourage people to drive. What you want is a set of policies that work together.”

What can be done about this illogical setup?

Policies That Mesh

The Talking Taxes blog says the dichotomy is there because the policies exist in "completely different worlds"--the grants as an annual spending priority, and the tax break as a permanent entitlement. According to the blog:

A sensible starting point for rationalizing these warring federal transportation incentives would be to put both of these spending programs on the same budgetary footing. Repeal the tax subsidy and turn it into a spending program, which policymakers will have to annually evaluate on its merits right alongside the local subsidies that currently work at cross-purposes with it.

This makes perfect sense. Lawmakers would do well to simplify things, for themselves and for the American public. Federal laws are confusing enough by themselves, so two policies canceling each other out leave us even more confounded.

Policies also should work together to cut down on congestion. The 2005 Urban Mobility Report said that in 2003, "congestion caused 3.7 billion hours of travel delay and 2.3 billion gallons of wasted fuel, an increase of 79 million hours and 69 million gallons from 2002 to a total cost of more than $63 billion."

Reducing that $63 billion sum would be good news for everyone.

Grants Back Congestion Pricing, Flextime

The Transportation Department Tuesday announced five metropolitan areas would get grants to help them fight congestion. The cities and the amounts they'll receive are: Miami, $62.9 million; the Minneapolis area, $133.3 million; New York City, $354.5 million; San Francisco, $158.7 million; and the Seattle area (King County), $138.7 million.

Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said each metro area had proposed a form of congestion pricing, which charges drivers a fee for entering a city-center at the busiest times of day.

“Many politicians treat tolls and congestion pricing as taboo, but leaders in these communities understand that commuters want solutions that work,” Peters said in a release.

She also said the cities' plans tap into flexible work schedules and telecommuting to ease traditional rush hours.

Yet another nod to the benefits of a flexible workplace.

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