The bike tax is just a distraction: The real problem is the billions on new highways

Package-Fact-Sheet-v4-1When the state Senate Democrats unveiled a transportation package last week, folks were shocked to see a “symbolic” bike tax of up to 5 percent on bike sales in the state. And we all fell for it, posting about why it makes no sense.

But really, the bike tax is just a distraction from the larger problems with the bill, acting like a smoke screen keeping people from seeing the real problem: Billions of dollars to partially fund highway expansions all over the state while failing to adequately address road safety, transit, walking and biking needs.

The Bicycle Alliance of Washington points out that less than half of one percent of the proposed $10 billion would go to investments that make it safer and easier to get around on foot and bike. This is simply unacceptable.

Seattle Transit Blog chimed in this morning reporting that the $3.9 billion for new and expanded highways (not including the funds for repairs to existing facilities) does not even fully fund those projects, meaning they will require many millions or billions more to complete them further down the road. This is exactly where we are today as the state tries to dig up the rest of the money for the 520 and the Hwy 99 deep bore tunnel projects.

There is some transit funding in the package, but not nearly enough to fill expected funding gaps at King County Metro and other transit agencies in the state. And this comes at a time when the state should be investing in fast and efficient regional transit, like helping to boost a Sound Transit 3 funding effort.

We cannot widen highways enough to significantly reduce congestion. But we can give people other options to lessen the load.

Meanwhile, lack of safe walking and biking routes to schools is the norm in Washington. This is unacceptable and shameful. It is also detrimental to the state’s education goals.

Compared to expanding a highway, making sure every single school in the state has safe crosswalks around it and safe connections to neighborhoods would cost the state very little. Why is Safe Routes to School absent from this plan?

Regional trails remain disconnected, unpaved or incomplete. A section of trail is kind of cool, but a connected network of trails and separated routes is a powerful transportation system. Cities from across the nation look to Washington’s Burke-Gilman Trail as a premier example of a regional bicycle highway, yet the state remains uninterested in completing other similar routes in its towns and cities.

The new complete streets funding is a step in the right direction, but the state’s own fact sheet describes that pool of money as a fund to make safety improvements for people on bike and foot. This completely leaves out the fact that the biggest safety improvements from complete streets come from reductions in car-on-car collisions. This is a great idea, of course, but it’s not only a biking and walking thing. The scale of the funding is also so completely out-of-scale with the rest of the package that the fact sheet pie graph rounds it to zero percent.

In hard number terms, the Bicycle Alliance of Washington and Transportation for Washington are pushing for at least $150 million per year in biking and walking safety projects and $200 million per year in transit funding. At those rates, it will still take a long time to catch up on the massive needs for biking and walking safety and access, but at least it would make a dent in the problem.

So while the bike tax is certainly a bad idea, let’s not take our eye off the ball. Large transportation packages don’t come along very often, and this one has gotten off to a very bad start. People working toward adequate funding for biking and walking safety are starting with very little on the table. To make matters worse, a tough, only-if-we-absolutely-have-to-do-it-to-get-something-worthy bargaining chip—the bike tax—is already on the table for some reason. It’s hard to bargain when you start by giving up everything and receiving nothing.

If it comes to it and the only way to get adequate or bold biking and walking funds is to offer up the bike tax, then it might be worth it to swallow that very bitter pill (see Neil from Montlake Bike Shop explain why it would hurt his small shop). Unfortunately, that’s not the situation we’re in. Can we get there? Democrats better hope so if they want to avoid bitter opposition to their plan.

Because Washington can’t afford another massive investment in the exact kinds of highway projects that got us into this mess of unsustainable, dangerous, frustrating and economically draining congestion. And we certainly can’t start taxing bicycles to pay for it.

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20 Responses to The bike tax is just a distraction: The real problem is the billions on new highways

  1. BobH says:

    Where is the political party who will represent those of us interested in transit, pedestrian, and bicycle improvements? The Dems are for taxing and spending to build highways and the GOP wants to build highways without taxes (how they will do this is a mystery).

    Those of us interesting in tackling climate change, improving our health, and strengthening our economy need to organize and hold our publicly elected officials’ feet to the fire.

  2. Eli says:

    Tom, you have such a gift for getting to the heart of a complex topic in a rigorous and engaging fashion. Thanks for everything you do.

  3. Tim says:

    While I certainly appreciate your sentiments, especially regarding the need to fund mass transit ahead of expanding roads and highways, a bike tax isn’t that far-fetched. Five percent of annual bike sales doesn’t come close to the cost of providing these vast networks of trails and street safety improvements. Instead, how about you pay for green boxes, bike lanes, road resurfacing for that three foot strip, trails, crossings, etc. I’ll continue to pay my taxes for my car, bus and light-rail (as will you). Either way, it’s a completely disorganized effort on all parts that just leads to more fighting and little result.

    Sound Transit 1,2,3 all had their complements, but never conquered the complete transportation package. At this point, it almost feels too late to start including every form of transport. I’m sick of nickel and dime taxes. We need to have an honest discussion of where we are headed and what our needs are long-term before we discuss increased taxes. In the meantime, it’ll be pay as you go.

    • pqbuffington says:

      Let’s take this argument to the logical next step…should we exact a pedestrian-tax to cover cross-walk paint and signage as well as those terribly expensive automated crossing signals?

      And who really needs safety improvements? I mean, it is not like any resources are expended for the lack of safety if you exclude emergency response personnel-and-equipment, hospital staff-and-stays, and the heroic efforts of our legal-and-actuary class.

      As for those “vast networks of trails” could you help me out and tell me where they actually are? I mean the ones that are exclusively the province of bicycles, like the freeway is for cars, and devoid of pedestrians, prams, and pets.

      Most of the infrastructure you reference is bicycle themed or bicycles permitted at best…and, yes, we are finally getting some actual material improvements, as opposed to mere paint, but this is pittance in effort and monies compared to what we are doing to simply maintain automobile gridlock.

      The bicycle sales tax is merely codifying road-rage. Progress!

    • Gary says:

      “Instead, how about you pay for green boxes, bike lanes, road resurfacing for that three foot strip, trails, crossings, etc.”

      Road resurfacing benefits both bicycles and auto drivers.

      And in general, a bicycle is “one less car” on the road, we aren’t adding to congestion we are helping fix it.

      Plus all of things (roads, transit & bike trails) are paid for from property taxes which bicycle riders already pay for, but we aren’t using the vast majority of the things we are paying for when we ride bicycles.

      Face it, an auto centric city isn’t sustainable, nor is it a nice place to live.

  4. Jeff Weissman says:

    OK. So lets do something positive, all of us. How about we all contact our representative to Olympia, work harder with the Cascade Bike Club and the Bicycle Alliance of Washington on these issues and ask each what more can we do to help? Maybe we can be a part of the change to a better overall system!

    Jeff

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  9. Dan Howe says:

    I love good highways. And I like mass transit and bikes, mainly because it makes more room for my car. Seriously though, I am a biker and I know that it benefits everyone to accomodate bikes. Biking is an easy way to get healthier and reduce gas consumption. The number one problem in this country is health care costs, and they are directly linked to obesity. Get everyone healthier and suddenly everything becomes more affordable, from health care to employee benefits to government budgets. FYI Obamacare does nothing to control health care costs overall, so we need to get started on being healthier.

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  12. Ken says:

    so i guess in the future we need to pay the “shoe tax”?

  13. tony says:

    What an incredibly sleazy creep,America really needs to run bastards like this out of office come election time!

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