The governor's recent proposal to reward companies with a tax credit for each employee they allow to telecommute could be one piece in solving the puzzle of how to reduce traffic congestion on highways into Greater Boston. But it's also one of those ideas that could be very difficult to measure before putting it into place.
The provision, which would provide a $2,000 per employee tax credit to companies that let employees work remotely, was one element of Gov. Charlie Baker's plans for $18 billion in transportation spending. That package aims mainly at paying for enhancements at the MBTA, for bridge repairs and for investments in public transit in line with a multi-state Transportation Climate Initiative, which is still in development.
Baker said Massachusetts is lagging behind other states when it comes to telecommuting and said he hopes a tax credit -- capped at $50 million per year -- would encourage more companies to allow telecommuting. The idea is to take take cars off the road and help with the crush of traffic during rush hour.
Critics said Baker's idea would unfairly favor white-collar workers who have the kind of jobs that allow for working remotely, and it's unclear just how many cars would stay at home if the number of telecommuters increased. Advocates of congestion pricing in downtown Boston – charging fees to drive into the center city at key commuter times, for example – see that as a better way to even out the number of vehicles coming in at once. And proponents of public transportation say focusing on improving the reliability and reach of subway and rail service are key to getting more cars off the road. If you give drivers a reasonable, reliable option, they might park the car and ride the rail.
In looking at what impact an increase in people working remotely might have, MassLive cited Governing Magazine's analysis of U.S. Census data by metro area. That report said 5.3% of workers in Greater Boston telecommute, compared to 6.3% in Seattle, 6.8% in San Francisco, 7.1% in Atlanta and 9.1% in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Baker is right in thinking the tech-savvy workforce and types of employers in Greater Boston, MetroWest, the South and North Shores lend themselves to more telecommuting as a workplace option. He sees the tax incentive as one way to promote that.
With so much digital communication among people in the state, "You would think an economy like ours would be able to take advantage of it and act on it," Baker told MassLive.
The recent transportation study cited the obvious problems to anyone who spends time driving to work in eastern Massachusetts. There are too many cars on the road at key times, minor accidents or construction magnify the traffic delays on key highways, and there are an awful lot of people driving alone to work, rather than carpooling.
The Baker administration is committed to spending money to improve the MBTA, which continues to suffer from derailments, delays and unreliable service. In one bright spot last week, the first new Orange Line trains began making test runs, the first of many new subway cars coming off the assembly line. Commuter rail lines have improved but also see their share of delays, making the ride into or out of Boston from Newburyport or Gloucester something of a crap shoot.
There are no easy solutions to the commuter challenges in Massachusetts. State officials are right to look at the obvious -- spending money on highway improvements and MBTA upgrades. If getting more cars off the roads is a goal, as it should be, the tax incentive for telecommuting should be one small, but important, part of this.