At 6:40 a.m. yesterday, Tim Baldwin contemplated a nap. Then, the announcement came over the intercom of his MARC commuter train: Two Internal Revenue Service agents had boarded the train, and of course they were here to help.
So the Food and Drug Administration clerk from Baltimore rubbed his eyes and wandered to the rear of the train's fifth car, where there was a white cardboard sign with blue letters: "Federal Tax Information Here."
It was far too early for serious talk of 1040s and mortgage deductions. But for the sixth consecutive tax season, the Mass Transit Administration has arranged for IRS agents to offer tax advice on MARC trains twice a week during morning commutes between Washington and Baltimore. And Mr. Baldwin, 37, had a question.
"I have some stock," Mr. Baldwin told IRS taxpayer service rTC specialist Judy L. Addington. "And I think I need a 553 to find out what the taxes are."
Ms. Addington, 49, sized up the sleepy Mr. Baldwin and said, "It would be capital gains. But you haven't sold it yet."
"Good point," he said a few minutes later as he returned to his seat. "I'm going to go back to sleep."
Yesterday's crowded 6:35 a.m. run from Baltimore to Washington and the relatively empty 8:30 a.m. return train were this tax season's first shuttle with IRS agents aboard. Until March 7, agents will be on board two Penn line MARC trains on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. From March 12 to March 21, they will be on Camden line trains those two mornings.
Tony Smith, a University of Baltimore law student who recently bought a house in Bolton Hill, asked the IRS representatives about exemptions and fretted about a possible flat tax, which some Republicans have proposed. "I want to get the mortgage deduction," he said, "if [presidential candidate Steve] Forbes doesn't get to it first."
"Don't worry," Ms. Addington said later about a possible flat tax. "You know that for everything they change, they'll have 100 pages of exceptions."
Conductor gets material
Tom Brooks, a conductor on the 8:30 train, picked up a tax guide and a Schedule A. Even Joe Verch, a 47-year-old federal auditor from Perry Hall, had a question: Could he claim his son, who graduates from college this year, as a dependent? The answer he received wasn't definitive.
Ms. Addington, who works in the Baltimore office of the IRS, was joined on the train by 11-year IRS veteran Elwood Lucas Jr.
More than once, Mr. Lucas' easygoing presence won over passengers. The IRS agent, who grew up in Baltimore, seemed to know dozens of people on board, from old co-workers (he and Ms. Addington helped console an IRS employee who had fallen ill on her way to work in Washington) to the conductors.
Mr. Lucas' father worked on the railroads for 30 years and was well known among those who passed through Penn Station. Still, his IRS agent son remains more of a straight arrow than the women and men who ride the rails.
"Hey, Elwood, can I save money by getting married?" teased conductor Tim Johnson.
"You should get married for love, not money," Mr. Lucas replied seriously.
Both are volunteers
Mr. Lucas and Ms. Addington volunteered for the train duty. They usually spend their time at the office on the phone, answering tax questions. In person, they said, people are usually more polite.
Sitting under their cardboard sign, the two agents waited for business to come to them. A cardboard box full of tax guides rested on the seat next to Ms. Addington, and Mr. Lucas kept one hand on an accordion file full of forms.
Although their presence drew a handful of sneers (one passenger noted that even a slow-moving bureaucrat looks fast on a train going 50 mph), most passengers praised the IRS.
"It's a good idea," said Dick Henson, 49, a Defense Department employee who rode the MARC train yesterday but said he didn't need tax advice. "It's the kind of neutral environment where people will ask good questions."
Anthony Brown, an MTA spokesman, said the tax-advice service was conceived not to attract new business but to help busy MARC riders complete their taxes ahead of time. Mr. Brown and John A. Agro Jr., the mass transit administrator, said they have filed their personal income tax returns.
Philosophy: 'Be early'
"We have a philosophy at the MTA," said Mr. Agro. "Be early."
Yesterday's 6:35 train left Penn Station on time and and nearly full. Still, Mr. Lucas and Ms. Addington said the number of interested taxpayers was lower yesterday than in previous years, a decline they attributed to a better-educated public.
In all, nine people approached the IRS representatives for advice, and a dozen more took 1995 tax guides or other forms.
Blurry-eyed commuters who didn't take the free advice said they need all the tax tips they can get. But most were simply not in the mood to talk W-2s with the sun just rising.
"It's too early in the morning to be thinking about the IRS," said Jason Young, an engineer on his way to work in Crystal City, Va. "Plus, I'm a last-minute guy when it comes to taxes."