The Washington Metro Crash and Tax
posted by Sarah Lawsky
Taxes raise revenue, of course, but they also induce behavior. Sometimes these behavioral responses are intended by lawmakers (for example, when lawmakers raise taxes on an activity they deem undesirable, such as smoking), but often they are not.
The deadliness of yesterday’s Metro crash in Washington, DC, my hometown and current location, may be, at least in part, one of these unintended consequences.
As you have doubtless seen elsewhere, two Metro trains collided when one train ran into the back of a stopped train, killing at least nine and injuring over 75 others. The first car of the moving train was, the Washington City Paper reports, the oldest type of Metro car in the system, a 1000-series Rohr car.
The City Paper reports that the National Transportation Safety Board repeatedly recommended that Metro (more formally known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA) retrofit or replace these older cars, but Metro refused. Why? Because “WMATA is constrained by tax advantage leases, which require that WMATA keep the 1000 Series cars in service at least until the end of 2014.”
What are these “tax advantage leases”? They appear to be standard sale-leaseback transactions, in which WMATA sold equipment, including train cars, to another party and now leases it back. The other party gets various tax advantages (depreciation, credits, and so forth) associated with owning the equipment, and WMATA, which as a tax-exempt organization cannot use these advantages, gets cash. But apparently the leases did not include language that permits WMATA to break the leases if newer, safer equipment comes along.
Thus sale-leasebacks, which are purely tax-motivated transactions, may have locked Metro into using outdated and unsafe equipment and thus made this crash even more deadly than it might otherwise have been.
(I have not seen the documentation for these transactions, so I’m only guessing about the details based on some articles and documents I was able to locate on the web, and I’m not an expert in the area of sale-leasebacks, which raise many tax issues, so if others have any insight into this transaction in particular or sale-leasebacks in general, comments, corrections, and clarifications would be most welcome.)