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Why an $80 vehicle license fee makes sense

The city is considering an increase in the Vehicle License Fee (car tabs) to help pay for the massive backlog in road maintenance. But the proposal recommended by the citizen’s committee tasked with putting the funds to use also saw it as an opportunity to add more to the underfunded pedestrian and bicycle master plans. The largest chunk of funding would go to transit, according to Publicola.

Image via Publicola

There are three proposals on the table right now. Jean Godden, who appears to be the only City Council candidate throwing all of her reelection chips in the “I like driving cars” pot, has proposed a $40 VLF increase that would spend three times as much money on general road projects than transit, bicycling and walking projects combined. Her opponents all disagree with her.

The Citizen’s Transportation Advisory Committee (CTAC III) has proposed the full $80 increase, with the largest chunk going to transit, followed by general road projects, then pedestrian and bicycle projects. Though it is the smallest chunk, the funding would add an additional $5.4 million. Given the incredible value (and job creation potential) of projects that help biking and walking, this money would do a whole lot of good for public safety and livable communities.

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CM Tom Rasmussen has proposed a $60 increase that would match the proportions recommended by CTAC.

Like CM Mike O’Brien, I originally had concerns about the fee being so regressive. If you are struggling to get by, a $100 registration fee ($80 plus the $20 already passed by the council) could be a significant chunk of cash.  I would much prefer a motor vehicle excise tax or gas tax to a flat-rate increase.

However, this funding plan is very worthy of support from the council, and O’Brien has backed it. He suggested the council find a way to cut low-income drivers slack, perhaps in the form of a refund. I would love to see this idea pursued.

But even without it, the CTAC plan offers the best opportunity to catch up on our underfunded street repairs while also providing everyone in Seattle with more transportation options that are healthier and more affordable to both the city and individuals. The investments in transit, sidewalks, safe streets and safe bicycle infrastructure give citizens the tools they need to ditch or reduce one of their biggest economic drains: Personal vehicle use.

The VLF could also be an excellent opportunity to fund the ambitious, exciting and community-led neighborhood greenways movement (more exciting news on that soon). However, I was shocked to see that the most vocal greenways booster on the council, Sally Bagshaw, voiced support for something more like Godden’s road-heavy funding ratio, according to Publicola:

Sally Bagshaw added that she would only support a ballot measure that focuses on “maintenance and mobility,” indicating that she was leaning toward Godden’s proposed mix of projects, if not necessarily the $40 fee level.

This is the time for CM Bagshaw to vote to help realize the hard work and excitement of the greenways movement she helped kick start. There is an ever-growing list of neighborhoods organizing around this idea, but now she seems like she may be reluctant to help them move forward. I hope all her talk about supporting safe neighborhood streets was not mere lip service.

Just a couple months ago, Bagshaw expressed her desire to find a dedicated funding source for these projects. Now that the opportunity is in front of her, and I hope she pursues it to help make them a reality. From May:

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said these projects are “perfect for a neighborhood matching grant” from DON, but she does not want funding just to be limited to neighborhood grants.

“It would be great if we could get a dedicated revenue source,” she said.

The $80 is already a compromise plan created by an active citizen group. I would prefer to see more bicycle and pedestrian master plan than what is included, but the proportions are fair and worthy of support. You can voice your support easily using this handy online form from Cascade Bicycle Club.

There will also be a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

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25 responses to “Why an $80 vehicle license fee makes sense”

  1. How can a city override the statewide $35 tab initiative?

    1. AndrewN

      I-776 was more than 2 years before the Transportation Benefit District bill passed, so the initiative doesn’t matter.

      For how local jurisdictions can implement fees, see here:

  2. Gary

    And the initiative allows for a vote by the people, they can vote for any amount over the basic $35 tab fee. In fact since it is the people’s money, that’s what I’d prefer for the county $20 fee, a vote.

  3. Jerry

    Why not impose a license fee for bikes, they use the road and need to pay their fair share since a lot of the money is going for bike infrastructure. 100% of the car tab fees should go to vehicles not bikes.

    1. erik

      in portland they researched how expensive ALL the bicycle infrastructure on the roads cost (repainting/lines/signals/etc) and the total cost for over 300 miles of bicycle infrastructure cost less than 1 mile of non-rural freeway.

      i lived in seattle for 3 years with no car. i subsidized your driving habits quite a bit and didn’t complain. when you live in a modern society you make sacrifices for others that help the common good.

    2. mike archambault

      “a lot of the money is going for bike infrastructure”

      Please define “a lot” and describe to me how you came to that conclusion.

  4. Jeremy

    Okay, let’s be fair, and (ignoring the toxic exhaust and other short-term (32,800 culled in “accidents” last year) and long-term (sedentary morbidly obese population) health issues cars enable) set the tax at a pound for a pound by weight, so say $30 for a bicycle, and therefore $5071 for the average mid-size sedan. $80 tab for a car? Fifty cents for a bicycle.

    It greatly displeases me that my federal, property, and sales taxes are used to subsidize the car habits of this nation, but what can I do?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Love the pricing scheme.

      1. Agree. I’ve long thought that a similar scheme could be used for tickets for traffic violations…

    2. Doug Bostrom

      Looks like a plan!

      A physicist might refine your idea by substituting kinetic energy for resting mass of the vehicle.

  5. Jerry

    I am just saying it is about shared sacrifice,

    @ Mike, first a lot of money goes to reconfiguring streets to allow protected bike lane like on Dexter costs money, adding bike lanes in the “road diet” policy costs money, adding bike lockers costs money, the walk bike ride program costs money in admin costs, marketing costs, and material costs – but I guess you think that is all free.

    Right now cars pay license fees to drive on the road, but our bicycle counter parts pay nothing and get the benefits of using the streets and causing congestion. If you use the roads you should pay like everyone else, it is about shared sacrifice. 25 dollars is a good number per bike.

    @ erik, Unless you can site the source of that report, for all I know you could easily make that up, just like last year there was a study that bikes cause 95% of traffic congestion – random citing can be dangerous if you use that in your arguments.

    1. erik

      here are a number of infographics:
      $60million is what portland has paid in bike lanes and bike ways, according to portland mercury’s reporting in the same issue. and since you’re so scared of money being used on bicyclists and bicycle infrastructure, those first two infographics will probably bring some cognitive dissonance, but still worth looking at.

      1. Jerry

        That is just a graphic, anyone with access to kinko’s could make that with false data. I need to see the methodology to see how they arrived at the numbers that they did.

        BTW, this is not an official report, someone did this freelance and there is not oversight to the accuracy of the results, irresponsible to site this as a source for any real discussion of the costs of these projects.

        Many of the figures are look flat wrong especially the claim where bike projects create more jobs than regular car infrastructure projects, I would like an explanation of that result.

        Anyway, assuming those numbers are correct, the city is still paying 60 million for bike improvements without the bikers paying anything for them. Not a good way to run a city.

  6. […] the Vehicle License Fee, the Netherlands is considering installing meters to track how much you drive and charge you taxes […]

  7. ODB

    I think it is a mistake to think of bike improvements as solely benefiting bicycles–and thus as amenities that should be solely funded by bicyclists. Separate bike lanes get bicycles out of the way of cars and improve the flow of traffic. By encouraging more people to ride, they reduce the number of cars and thus reduce congestion and pollution. Non-bicyclists should be willing to share in the costs for these enhancements to their driving experience! As Jerry said earlier, it’s all about shared sacrifice!

    But should cyclists at least pay something for the amenities they enjoy? As a car owner who bicycles to work every day, I feel as though my car tabs already pay for a road system that is not set up to serve the majority of transportation needs as bicyclist. Why should I pay the penalty of an additional fee when my bicycling actually relieves congestion by taking another car off the road? While bicycling is often fun and has great health benefits, doing it as a year-round commuter can be cold, wet, tedious and time-consuming,. Obviously, for me, the trade off is worth it. But I also feel that this effort and discomfort (together with my car tabs and all the other taxes and fees I pay) is part of my “shared sacrifice,” my contribution to a cleaner, healthier, less congested city. Grinding uphill in a downpour does not feel like a “free ride.” On a personal level, I’m not totally opposed to a fee of some kind for bicycling (assuming that the administrative costs did not overwhelm the revenues generated), but in light of benefits of bicycling for everyone, whether they ride or not, I think we should being lowering the obstacles to riding rather than raising them.

    1. Jerry

      first off 100% wrong, Bike lanes do increase congestion. Just ask London – as they added bike ways they say congestion increase. In order to add bike lanes you have to take road space away from cars which increases congestion, absolutely with out a doubt. You will see this happen on Dexter as the new bike reconfiguration goes in to affect – congestion on that road is already worse during rush hours.

      So why would drivers pay for something that makes them worse off???
      And don’t BS me about environmental issues, the car tabs are paid even if you drive a zero emission electric car.

      As for the roads not serving bicycles??? last I checked the roads allowed bikes to travel up and down them, and the side streets are more than accommodating.

      Biking is a choice, as is driving, and for the bikers to receive benefits from the city they need to pay in to the pot as do drivers currently.

      1. rob

        they do. your car tabs don’t pay for the streets. income, sales, property, and gas taxes do. SDOT’s budget is available on the city’s website. look it up and you will find car tabs pay for $0 of it. gas tax pays 9%. the rest comes from sales tax, property tax, and state and federal grants.

        it baffles me that people think the small fee they pay to license their car could possibly represent their fair contribution to the cost of all of this transportation infrastructure.

  8. Andy Schmidt

    Interesting blog post about who actually pays for roads (with lots of links)…
    Sounds like the vast majority of us are paying for the roads whether or not we register a car.

    1. Jerry

      You folks sure like posting unverifiable statistics and reports. Methodology matters when you site this kind of stuff.

      @ Andy Schmidt, since we all pay for the road even if we do not have a car, why tack more expenses to that??? Lets fix the “political” pot holes first and then talk bike lanes.

  9. ODB

    Jerry, thanks for responding, but I think you’ve changed your position. First you said bicycles “get the benefits of using the streets and causing congestion.” In response, I suggested that as a driver you should be in favor of getting bicycles out of cars’ way and into bike lanes. Now you’re arguing that it’s not bicycles sharing general traffic lanes, but rather “bike lanes” that cause congestion. This is a different argument. But to address your new argument as to whether the congestion benefits of getting bikes out of the way of cars and into bike lanes is offset by the loss of general traffic lanes, I believe there are studies indicating that “road diets” are a net benefit where number of vehicles per day is less than 20,000. (Sorry, I don’t have the citation, but I believe this has been cited before on this blog.) So, I think the analysis of whether or not cars benefit has to be done on a street-by-street basis. My understanding is that SDOT only does road diets where their studies indicate that it will be a net benefit for cars based on their projections of traffic volumes for the next ten years or so. I’m not very impressed by the statistical rigor of your statement about London: “as they added bike ways they say congestion increase.”

    Sorry, but your statment about electric cars having to pay car tabs seems a little strange. Are you saying there is some kind of equivalency of environmental impact between bicycles and cars because a minute percentage of cars are electric and thus don’t produce tailpipe emissions (even though the electricity had to be generated somehow, and even hydro and wind power have environmental downsides)? Or maybe it’s that electric cars should not have to pay for tabs? It seems self-evident that bicycling rather than driving–even for the tiny percentage of people who own electric cars–creates environmental benefits for everyone.

    My last point is that you seem to have deliberately misunderstood my statement that my car tabs are paying for “a road system that is not set up to serve the majority of [my] transportation needs as bicyclist.” I never said it was illegal or impossible to bicycle in the street, as you imply. My point is the road system is not set up for cyclists. It is set up for cars and bicyclists are faced with inconviences and dangers as a consequence. If you have ever tried riding in a busy street, you will notice that you feel like a second class citizen. This is not really a debatable point, which I why I assume you chose to reformulate my statement into a silly one about whether or not bicycling on the street is even possible.

  10. Jerry

    The big picture is that there is a large percentage of people that have to use their cars for transportation that are getting screwed by these increased costs imposed on them (not to mention small businesses like contractors that their whole business is on the road). Costs including time lost in congestion.

    As for my argument changing, it is consistent in that adding bike lanes will increase congestion and thus increase the burden to everyone on the roads. Since they increase the burden then they need to pay part of the cost. No matter what if they use the road they need to pay for it, just like everyone else.

    As for bikers feeling like second class citizens on the road – news flash roads are built for cars not bikes – bikes can use them but must realize that no matter what they are less visible and in a perilous situation. Many bikers refuse to use deserted side streets and opt for the main arterial streets, this is a problem one it increases their risk, and it causes congestion on a major arterial.

    I would propose that more bike paths be made available away from the roads, or at lease bike paths follow side streets instead of main arterial streets.

    Road diets only reduce traffic on the road because they restrict traffic with fewer lanes, and more people avoid those roads and add to other roads. A common misconception about the moronic “road diets”. Just another penalty to drivers.

    Car Tabs: the argument part of the reason that drivers pay car tab fees is to help offset (money is not used to offset – another argument for another day) the pollution. if that was the case, electric cars should be exempt from this charge. And yes bikes too have a carbon footprint as well – they should pay proportionally.

    1. erik

      bicyclists use arterials and not “deserted side streets” for the same reason cars do: arterials are the streets designed to get from point a to point b efficiently. “deserted side streets” are such because they don’t really go anywhere of importance (except the one you live on).

    2. Tom Fucoloro


      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here in a manor that is engaging instead of antagonistic (something that happens a lot on comment boards). I think you have highlighted some issues where safe roads advocates can work to be more clear when discussing projects such as the Vehicle License Fee and road diets.

      First, with regards to licensing bicyclists, here is something I wrote to another commenter a few days ago:

      Please note that people who ride bicycles do pay for the roads already. Practically none of SDOT’s funds come from gas taxes, and the majority of people who ride bikes also own cars (though, certainly, some do not).

      Here is a breakdown of SDOT’s funding sources. Note that most are from property taxes, which all of us pay: http://publicola.com/2010/08/31/we-all-pay-for-the-roads/

      Also, bicycling promotes local investment. While almost all the money spent on a motor vehicle leaves the city, money spent by people bicycling stays here (including local sales taxes, etc). http://www.grist.org/biking/2011-02-28-how-bicycling-will-save-the-economy

      Once you include the immense cost on cities from car crashes and other negative health consequences of motor vehicle operation every year: http://www.grist.org/biking/2011-03-28-pedaling-away-from-the-health-care-crisis you begin to see that choosing to ride a bicycle saves cities an enormous amount of money: http://bikeportland.org/2011/02/04/research-by-2040-portlands-bikeway-investments-could-save-us-800-million-in-health-care-fuel-costs-47392

      Driving is an extremely subsidized activity, and much of that subsidy comes from people who ride bicycles. For example, parking is extremely expensive to install and maintain. When I ride my bike to the grocery store, I pay a premium on my purchase to cover that store’s investment in “free” parking, which I did not use.

      Cars weigh two tons and my bike weighs 30 lbs (and that’s a pretty heavy bike). My bike is not heavy enough to crush asphalt or concrete. A car is. Bike paths last decades, even with constant use. Motor vehicles demolish far more expensive roads within a few years. The only way for the city to pay for them is either through the ever-shrinking general fund or by raising revenue through gas taxes, vehicle license fees or yet more property levies.

      It makes no sense to license bicycling because bicycling saves the city an immense amount of money, and cities should do whatever they can to get more tax payers out of cars and onto two wheels (or walking). From a purely financial standpoint, cities would have to spend money to do something that prevents citizens from saving the city money. That does not make sense.

      As for road diets, you can find many posts here defending the sound use of properly-designed streets to promote efficient, low-stress and safe streets for all road users. It is a fallacy to call a road diet a “bike project.” Yes, bike lanes are often (but not always) involved. The function of a road diet is to decrease collisions between motor vehicles and other road users, including other motor vehicles. A four-lane road is, simply, overdesigned for urban neighborhood traffic use. When you have many turning movements, it makes more sense to have a center turn lane than to have cars stop in a general traffic lane in order to make turning maneuvers. This constant stopping and lane changing slows traffic and causes dangerous situation that are unnecessary (turning across two lanes is extremely dangerous due to the tendency for t-bone accidents, which is a leading cause of serious traffic injuries and death).

      If you don’t want to take my word for it, this study of the Stone Way road diet confirms the predictions and sound traffic study methods used by SDOT when implementing these changes: http://publicola.com/2010/05/24/study-shows-stone-way-road-diet-improved-traffic-safety/

      As you can see, traffic numbers stayed the same, side roads did not see an increase in traffic (as you suggested was the cause). Though it might SEEM like traffic would be negatively impacted by reducing the number of general traffic lanes, decades of experience in Seattle and around the world have proven, over and over, that urban roadways can be more efficient and FAR safer with fewer lanes. Better yet, a road diet is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase road safety (cheaper than police, traffic signals, speed bumps, center boulevards, and on and on).

      Here is a great explanation from Street Films: http://www.streetfilms.org/complete-streets-its-about-more-than-just-bike-lanes/

      As for roads being made for cars, you are right. Many of our roadways were designed during a period in our nation’s history when misguided traffic engineers put a huge focus on moving a large number of motor vehicles as quickly as possible. This has created roads that are far more dangerous than they need to be, encouraged rampant speeding and made many neighborhoods hostile to someone walking across the street or, yes, riding a bicycle. The city passed a Complete Street ordinance that mandates that all road projects consider all road users from now on, whether they are driving a motor vehicle, freight, riding a bicycle, walking or using a wheel chair. So our roads are no longer “for cars,” and that is mandated by law.

      Most people who ride bicycles in Seattle also own cars. So they will, in fact, be paying exactly the same as other drivers while passing on a lesser cost to the city by leaving their car in the driveway. So your argument that people riding bikes not paying is moot. Consider the excess from their unused car tab payment coverage for the minority of us who don’t own a car if that makes more sense to you.

      Or, another way to look at is that because tax-paying citizens who ride bicycles actually save the city money by choosing not to drive (see above), then bicycling or walking is sort of like working off our road payment, like washing dishes to pay a dinner tab (though considering how much money bicycling can save a city, that dinner better have been from an extremely nice restaurant.

      Finally, I am confused by your statement that bikes have a carbon footprint. It does take some energy to create a bicycle (though far, far less than a car), and people do breathe oxygen and eat food. But I fail to see how this is comparable to burning gallons and gallons of refined petroleum (while also breathing oxygen and eating food).

  11. Andy Schmidt

    Jerry– if you won’t accept the U.S. Dept of Transportation Federal Hwy Administration, Brookings Institute’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, Seattle DOT, WA Dept of Licensing, or the WA Dept of Revenue as a reasonable source (as the blog post I linked to cited), I don’t know what will appease you. I was unable to get hold of London.

    I’m all for fixing the political pot holes. We both know they make for a bumpy ride no matter if in car or on bike.

    As far as increased fees being imposed on the “large percentage of people that have to use their cars for transportation”. Registration fees only apply to people who choose to own a car. It’s true that some of us do make or have made choices to set up our lives (or businesses) so that we’re more dependent on owning an automobile than we otherwise could be. I have found myself in that (car dependent) situation. I recognized the burden it was upon me (time in traffic and high financial burden… $4 gas… WTF!?!?), so I made (am still making) the necessary changes to not depend on my car so much. Businesses that are on the road need to build that time/expense into their pricing scheme.

    It may sound like an inconvenient or impossible prospect to get around without a car, but I assure you it’s a viable option with myriad unanticipated positive side-effects. I won’t pretend to know what your results would be if you were to give transportation pedaling a try, but as for me… I’ve gotten fit, I save several thousand dollars/year, and I have more fun getting from here to there than anyone in a car.

    I re-read your arguments from the beginning, Jerry. I imagine that you view bike lane users an non-car drivers. The fact is, as you stated earlier, that bicycling is a choice. Many people who choose to ride their bicycles also choose to drive a car sometimes (do you see more bikes in January or August?). My car registration fees go up the same as yours. Perhaps my assumption is wrong and you fully grasp that some people embrace and utilize multiple modes of transportation. I’m gonna guess that you don’t give it much thought beyond “cars vs bikes” when in fact we’re all just folks trying to get where we’re going.

    Anyway, I doubt if my non-cited rambling will convince you to see what the world is like from the seat of a bicycle and I’m surely not going to start driving more because of a rumor that congestion is on the rise in London.

    May all your miles be non-congested, Andy.

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