Seattle’s Prop 1 soundly defeated

With about a quarter of registered voters counted, Seattle Transportation Benefits District Proposition 1 (AKA the car tab increase) is getting stomped 60-40.

The proposition seemed like a long shot from the start, but I had hope it could squeak out a win if the pro campaign could get the message of faster transit and safer streets in front of enough people.

But the coalition of liberal voices were split from the start, with many decrying the flat-rate $60 vehicle license fee as too regressive. After all, why should a family struggling to keep their 1990 Ford Taurus running pay the same as someone’s third Jaguar? That’s a perfectly good point.

Some believed that, due to past Tim Eyman initiatives blocking most other liberal funding mechanisms, the car tab fee was the least regressive tax available. After all, poor people are less likely to own a car than wealthier people. Others saw that as a pretty weak sauce argument. Still others (me!) saw $60 as a just tank and a half of gas, and not really a big deal for car owners used to paying that much on a weekly basis to keep their bucket of bolts rolling. After all, those tanks of gas are not getting any cheaper, and we need to invest in providing more transportation choices.

I-776 passed with 51 percent of the statewide vote in 2002, taking a vehicle excise tax (based on a vehicle’s value) off the table as a funding option. I wonder what it would take to overturn that today. Probably a lot. But maybe the battle would at least distract Eyman from passing more initiatives that hinder our ability to improve our state (this year’s I-1125 appears ready to fail, though it’s a little too close for comfort).

The defeat of Prop 1 is bad news for neighborhood greenways and downtown cycle tracks. Not that they can’t happen, but they will likely come at the expense of other much-needed safety projects around the city. The bicycle program budget will remained strained and prospects for keeping the Bicycle Master Plan updated on schedule are grim.

Funding for the Pedestrian Master Plan will remain miniscule, including the addition of safer crossings and new sidewalks.

But the biggest loser is probably the Seattle Streetcar network. At the start, it was hoped that the idea of putting rail to Ballard within reach (for example) would have been a huge selling point for the proposition. But it turned out to be one of the most controversial aspects of the deal. Streetcars quickly dropped from most pro-Prop 1 arguments as people questioned spending so much on planning documents that would not immediately improve transit or deteriorating roadways.

And, of course, streetcars have largely tepid support from many Seattle bike riders, who are constantly plagued by design mistakes on the city’s only existing streetcar line in South Lake Union. This blog has been largely supportive of streetcar expansion under the assumption that the city will not repeat the same mistakes in future routes. After all, broad expansion of high capacity transit is absolutely necessary if the city is going to become a truly multi-modal city.

But people are not yet convinced or inspired by streetcars. Perhaps the opening of the First Hill Streetcar in 2013 will raise people’s excitement and trust.

The pro-Prop 1 was left trying to sell transit corridor improvements, such as bus-only lanes, traffic signal jumps for buses and bus bulbs. These are excellent investments, but they are difficult to explain and not very sexy. People who took the time to learn what these corridor improvements mean saw the value, but most people probably tuned out before the phrase “transit corridor improvements” was finished.

Bicycling safety projects were among the smallest funding pools in the proposition. But bike projects are so cost-effective that the added investment would have gone a long way.

The pro-Prop 1 campaign tried to avoid saying the word “bicycle” as much as possible, and bicycles were largely absent from most of the debate (though opponents did spend some time ragging on the idea of investing in bike parking, which I found odd).

Polls suggested early on that the proposition should not be too bike-heavy, especially a proposition paid for by motor vehicle tabs. We can debate all day about how cars are actually very subsidized by society and how encouraging more biking makes financial sense for a city and benefits all residents. But the truth is that we are not there yet as a city, and the majority of Seattle residents today are not going to agree with that statement.

Neighborhood Greenways came out of the Prop 1 discussion fairly well, I think. If nothing else, the brief period of time greenways spent as the focus of the Prop 1 discussion was valuable as a chance to present the idea to people. They are very popular once people understand how they work and how cost-effective they are. After all, who doesn’t want increased safety on residential streets and easier ways for families to walk and bike to neighborhood destinations? But they are not yet well-known or popular enough to sell a campaign yet.

The Prop 1 campaign did not do a very good selling the pedestrian improvements. But they only had so much time, and they chose (probably wisely) to focus on selling the transit improvements. With an unlimited budget and number of volunteers, they could have done better selling the $2.3 million per year earmarked to make walking safer and easier. But lackluster liberal support from the start probably limited the campaign’s contributions and volunteers right out of the gate (credit goes to John Fox, who was very quick to oppose the proposition and frame a conversation about regressive taxing that Streets for All was not able to completely overcome).

Mayor McGinn said he thinks the proposition would have done better if there were more high capacity transit. I wonder what would have happened if the city were able to say, “This will get us a streetcar to Ballard,” instead of, “This will get us studies for future routes that we will later have to find more funding to build as part of a network that hardly exists at all today.”

I also wonder what would have happened if the money earmarked for high capacity transit studies went to on-the-ground transit improvements. Was part of the problem that the money was divided into so many pools that not enough was in each one to make inspiring promises?

Whatever the reason (or reasons), we are left with underfunded road safety plans. The city will keep making small investments to make walking and biking safer and easier, but it’s not enough. We have to keep pushing for safety be a priority in our city’s transportation budget and working to spread the word about neighborhood greenways and the value of family-friendly streets.

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38 Responses to Seattle’s Prop 1 soundly defeated

  1. dan says:

    Looks like your ignoring the most obvious reason this was shot down, and why not since it coincides with your agenda.

    Read the comments on the Seattle Times article about this and you will see that its not about flat rate fees, money (especially seeing we voted for the levy boost for kids) and disparity between classes. Its all about bikes. People ignored most of the issues and strictly voted no because we dont want to pay more for our tabs so WE can be penalized by having out streets destroyed so 6 bikes a day can cruise in what they believe is a more safe zone.

    Had this been a $60 fee to institute a cycling license that forces riders to pass a safety test, and go toward paying police to enforce the rules of the road on cyclists I would have voted yes. Just think, bike fees and road violations would go toward all the pretty and safe greenways you want. and in turn, Us majority that voted would get the peace of mind knowing that the idiot cycling in dark clothing with no lights that drifts out in the street will soon be forced to wear reflective vest and put some lights on, and we will know he was educated to signal a turn and LOOK before just darting out across lanes.

    Share the road doesn’t mean cars are sharing YOUR road.

    Im all for cycling, totally against idiots.

    ~dan

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I didn’t ignore that, Dan. There’s a whole paragraph about people not wanting to pay car tab fees for bike projects.

      As for bike licenses, show me a single instance where they worked (other than decreasing the number of people biking) anywhere in the world and we’ll talk. In the meantime, I’ll show you a huge list of cities that have found investments in bicycle infrastructure helped increase safety, meet pollution reduction goals and increased public health for everyone (regardless of whether they bike or not).

      • Shawn says:

        I would love to see the State put a $5-$10 bicycle sales tax that goes towards Bike safety and paying for bike lanes so they can Safely share the road with cars and trucks.

    • doug in seattle says:

      You need to provide actual evidence that bicycles are a serious safety problem on our street. You need to show that there is a real epidemic of scofflaw cyclists causing injuries, deaths, and property damage on a wide scale. Then I’ll believe that we need to pass punitive legislation towards cyclists. Until then you sound like an ignorant anti-cyclist.

      • doug in seattle says:

        Also, citing the Seattle Times as an accurate barometer of public opinion in Seattle is really stupid. It’s true.

      • Shane Phillips says:

        Yeah, you’re about as likely to get a balanced view of the perspective of Seattle residents regarding bike lanes on the Seattle Times as you are here.

        And for future reference, qualifying your statements with “I’m all for cycling” after trashing cyclists for several paragraphs isn’t convincing anyone. If you really were all for cycling you’d be more careful not to lump in the irresponsible bikers with the vast majority of us who ride safely.

    • Steve A says:

      Actually, using the notion of car tabs as a “user fee,” it seems more appropriate to use the $60 towards getting the menaces driving deadly weapons that do not belong on our roads OFF those roads. That would benefit the vast majority of law-abiding motorists, as well as non motorized road users. We should not forget that we all are non motorized road users from time to time, and our children have no other choice for those times they need to use the road system on their own.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    I’m just pleased to see that despite an astoundingly deceptive ballot description, 1125 appears to have failed. Eyman has failed to deliver the goods he promised to Kemper Freeman. Does K-F get his money back from Eyman? Are cement overshoes and a cozy spot off Bellevue at the bottom of Lake Washington in Eyman’s future?

    Seriously, how in the world was the description of 1125 in the ballot stripped of its real meaning and left sounding so superficially reasonable?

    Next election, let’s do an initiative describing how future “spontaneous” citizen initiative efforts will automatically be dropped from the ballot when campaign spending exceeds a certain level from single payers, say $1 million, with a $250k threshold for out-of-state players. Any ordinary citizen may say what they like in the traditional fashion via the public square, letters to the editor and the like, free speech remains unabridged, but if purchased “spontaneous initiative” funded by a single party exceeds a certain amount the proposed legislation will be kicked down the road to start again with a new signature gathering effort, etc.

    We need somehow to get the “citizen initiative” process out of the hands of corporations and others with intentions entirely divorced from the public good. Insulating the process from direct connections to extremely large bank accounts would be a help.

  3. Bryan Willman says:

    I would like to suggest that more understanding of “real politic” would be worthwhile.

    Whether spending taxes imposed on cars to fund streetcars and cycling in a city choking in car traffic is a good or bad plan is largely irrelevent. It seems very very clear that a great many people (the majority) think Cars Are The Most Important Thing. And even if you built huge amounts of practical mass transit, Cars Will Still Be The Most Important Thing. And from the perspective of the majority of tax payers, roads must be fixed. First.

    Oh, and Eyeman’s initiative (as of a few hours ago) is winning in most of the state outside of King county. Going to win? Probably not. Going away? Surely not.

  4. Todd says:

    Well the good news is it’ll be easy to pound those Mojitos while the next agenda is devised and put on the ballot.

  5. Gary says:

    As a bicyclist I get a good long look at Seattle’s roads, and they are in sorry shape. That fee should have been 100% dedicated to road repair. Putting money into sealing the cracks would save bundles down the road by not needing to replace an otherwise fine bit of pavement.

    I don’t need bicycle lanes, I need smooth roads so I don’t crash when I ride the lane.

    • Todd says:

      I agree with you Gary. The problem, I suspect, is that the cars and stupid drivers need them.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Gary, that way of thinking is a trap. Sure, potholes are dangerous, but only spending money repaving the roads as they are today is not going to get more people biking or significantly increase safety for anybody on our roads. Some injuries are caused by road conditions, but the vast majority are caused by collisions between road users. Only repaving a road does little to change this.

      Maybe you don’t need a bike lane because you feel comfortable biking with cars in general traffic lanes. That’s great. But it’s clear that the biggest barrier to cycling for most people is the lack of safe bicycle facilities. Most people are simply never going to bike down a busy road unless they have a safe space to do it (or another viable option, like a trail or neighborhood greenway).

      Bike lanes also come typically as part of a larger road safety project that allows for more safe crosswalks and, someday, neighborhood greenway crossings. These are very sound investments that bring great value to all road users.

      • Todd says:

        Rock and roll Tom. I too feel comfortable riding in traffic but that’s not what it’s about in the bigger picture. But I understand his thinking. Just the paving improvements they made on N 34th St in Fremont, for example, have made a HUGE difference in that area. It was like riding through a war zone before. One had to keep any eye on traffic, one on merging traffic, and a third eye on the pavement so as you didn’t lose control of your bike.

      • Gary says:

        Yeah but if you label it “100% road repair” and then bring it up to current city standards which just happens to include sharrows, and bike lanes, and occasional round-a-bout, or forced right turn on a residential street which happens to have a path for bikes and peds down the middle….(because that’s the city guideline when you restripe a road….)

        And I get what I want, smooth roads, and you get what you want, better bicycling facilites.

        But we call it “road repair” and it passes at the ballot box.

      • Gary says:

        Also look at this road.

        http://g.co/maps/8ahrk

        I ride over this every day, and it sucks the big time. It’s got low traffic so sharrows are useless, but the surface is pitted like that of the moon.

        All through Capital hill are roads that look like this. If the city took care of them when they first started to have these problems we wouldn’t have to spend a fortune now repaving.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        I see what you’re saying. But if we only redesign roads as we repave, it will be 2095 before our streets are safe…

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Also, I agree the city should be funding road maintenance at a sustainable level. But if the choice is between only paving or some paving as well as some road redesigns, then I’m for the latter. Clearly we should be doing all of the above, though we would need much higher gas taxes and/or vehicle excise taxes to do that…

      • Gary says:

        Ok, so the tax should be higher, but unless the city starts taking care of what they already have, its going to be far worse in the future.

        It’s like repairing your roof rather than buying a new dishwasher. Yes a dishwasher saves you time, but leaky roof will cost you more in the long run. Same for bicycle safety improvements.

        That’s also why I want a dedicated bicycle only tax. Something that says, we are only going to spend this money on stuff to promote bicycling. ie trails, overpasses, underpasses. The things we need to get past all the dangerous bits of roadway.

  6. james in the CD says:

    the “it’s a regressive tax” argument was an excuse for subaru and prius driving self proclaimed left wing liberals to not pay the $60 extra for tabs – since when did we REALLY start caring so much about the welfare of the less fortunate???

    if you can afford a car – you should be able to pay the extra $60 – the regressive argument is so f!@#ing lame.

    it bothers me that people will pay $120 a month for cable or $60 to go to a mariners game – or large sums of cash on fancy rims and things of that sort – but $60 to improve the mobility for everyone in our City is to much to ask.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      $60 is still $60, though in the scheme of how much you spend on a car, it’s not very significant.

      However, it just wasn’t clear what people were buying for that $60. I feel like property taxes pass because people have no idea what 0.1 percent of $1,000 assessed value (or whatever) actually means to them in dollars. This was a tangible amount of money, and people needed a tangible promise of return. Unfortunately, all we could say was, “Some transit corridors will be a couple minutes faster!” And though that’s actually kind of a big deal (minutes saved on every trip forever), it’s kind of hard to explain how that’s worth $60 per year.

      I think it is, but I also understand the lack of enthusiasm for it.

      • Jonathan says:

        To me, this is exactly why regressive taxes/tax structures need to be debated and understood more. $60 doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to you, or to Bill Gates. I’m sure Bill would think $60 was a trifle. To me, this year, in my current financial state it was too much all at once, on top of the $40 already added. I approve of all the agenda items but I don’t approve of being asked to pay the same as someone who can spare 10x that extra a year without being financially strained. And I would question any assertion that only financially sound people can afford to own/register a car. Spent any time in a poor neighborhood? Working class people have to drive too, and not all of them are young enough to bike or walk everywhere. Not every job is located near a bus stop. I miss the MVET.

        This is the first time I’ve ever voted against such a measure, and that’s why I hope the message doesn’t become “Seattle votes against bikes and transit!” when for a lot of us I suspect it was about the method of taxation in light of the economy and other recent tax increases. The mayor is supposedly going back to the drawing board for another ballot measure next year, so I hope they do some focus studies and come up with something more palatable.

        There also needs to be a better demonstration of what’s at stake here. I felt that there was not a clear message about what the $60 is for and why it’s necessary (compare the $20 added to maintain bus service, although it was not put up for vote). This, that, and the other is probably all needed and good policy, but it’s not an effective campaign in tight economic times. Just expecting liberals to give, because you always give and it’s the right thing to do… well, there still needs to be some salesmanship.

  7. pqbuffington says:

    I guess the Prop-1 defeat might demonstrate a few things:

    • That (as suggested above) people are terrified of any additional costs added to their automobile budget ($60 is all but a tank-and-half of fuel at today’s prices) and, by deduction, they are tapped out on transportation expenses.

    Or, people simply do not understand that mass-rapid-transit and non-automobile transportation solutions are proven technologies; now for well over a century in the modern city context. This may very well be the greatest stumbling block…if you have never seen and used a well-run mass-rapid-transit system you may not be able to grasp the scale of efficiency.

    A bit anecdotal, but I have never been anywhere in the world (including Portland, OR) that had decent mass-rapid-transit AND bad roads; everywhere I have been that had the transit options Seattle desperately needs had/has better roadways.

    • That the marketing of Prop 1 was a total failure…why was the largest line-item in the initiative i.e. “Pavement Preservation” ($40mil over the ten year period), not communicated more substantially?

    • That nobody is buying the extension of the SLUT to the FHS, or the money that would allow for “Planning, alternatives analysis, environmental review, design and possible matching funds…” as a prudent use of funds.

    Why this amount could not have been added to the Electric Trolley budget I am not sure, but that would have been my preference.

    • That the general voting populace (for this election) does not have the slightest idea how much things cost. For example, the combined spend over the ten year period, or $44.8mil, on the presumably hated “Pedestrian, Bicycle and Freight Mobility Improvements” was the equivalent of one park-and-ride garage structure (I refer to the new one on I-5 in Mountlake Terrace)

    • That the Seattle Times has descended into some mayoral hate abyss that has nothing to do with the rational discussion of our transportation & logistical needs and, thusly, keeps any chance at consensus that much more remote.

    • That the same people who called Prop-1 regressive ‘cause it taxed everyone the same small amount are not about to get behind a state income tax initiative that would be, by their argument, “progressive”.

    Indeed, the populace has no problem with regressive taxes, e.g. sales taxes, except when it comes to automobile licensing fees.

    This is probably way too many “Thats”, but the mind boggles at what we collectively are to do to meet the transportation and logistical needs of the city and greater area when we collectively refuse to fund those needs.

  8. Doug Bostrom says:

    The New York Times’ Timothy Egan weighs in on Prop. 1:

    At the other end of the political spectrum, in Seattle, residents overwhelming turned down a tax increase that was billed as a boost for transit. The vote was another slap at Mayor Mike McGinn, a feckless social engineer who, on behalf of his dwindling constituency of bicycle riders, promoted an increase in the fee for renewing vehicle registrations.

    The chances of Seattle voting down a tax increase are about the same as those of the Mariners winning a pennant. In fact, Seattle voters strongly favored another tax increase on Tuesday, on behalf of education. But the car tab measure was a bridge too far and would not have fixed many bridges, either. It was another of the mayor’s nutty schemes to turn the city into Amsterdam-with-hills, the idea being that every car owner would pay an additional $60 toward things like more bike lanes and the “planning” of future trolley lines.

    Contrarian Common Sense

    What an ironic title. Amazing how distance can eliminate all the details needed for an accurate portrayal, eh? Remember when Mars was laced with canals? From Earth Mars looked all fuzzy, so we could let our imaginations run wild, just like Egan.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      “Amsterdam-with-hills” sounds like an amazing place. The fact that anyone can say that phrase like it’s a bad thing shows that he has forgotten how to dream.

      • pqbuffington says:

        Yes, “Amsterdam-with-hills”! Just imagine the hilly-pseudo-cobbled “Seattle Classic” we could stage every spring…the one-day greats would flock here…a Lake Washington lap (counter clock-wise) of sorts with all the hills of Seattle, Bellevue, et al thrown in…Philippe Gilbert attacking up 10th Ave E and summiting Cap-Hill at Aloha and 14th …Oh no! Gilbert punctures on the Denny descent! Not even the most resilient Belgian Tubular can withstand Seattle streets….Heartbreak! Oh what could have been!

    • Gary says:

      More like Sweden, or Norway than Amsterdam if you ask me. We’ve got world class bay out there for sailing, fishing, boating etc. Two wonderful lakes, (Washington and Sammamish) and lots of bicycle trails. Not as many as I’d like to see, and they aren’t as connected as they could be but we have geography!

      And we are on the right path, just not fast enough.

  9. Double D says:

    Mr. Egan,

    You, sir, are an idiot.

    Sincerely,

    Someone with sense

    • Kevin Carrabine says:

      For what it is worth, readers may or may not know that Timothy Egan is married to Joni Balter, of the Seattle Times.

      It is a bit distressing to hear him describe as ‘nutty’ the efforts to make it easier and safer for citizens of Seattle to bicycle around this town. It’s kind of nutty not to be working on that, don’t you think?

      • Chris says:

        this piece from Egan sounded a lot like Joni’s hyperbole, in fact. Almost like he phoned it in and had her write the column for him.

  10. Morgan Wick says:

    I’m okay with streetcars, though I’m skeptical that you couldn’t rip out the rails, build everything else the same with bus lanes replacing the rails, and have much of an effect, but I hated the Westlake rapid streetcar. It’s generally not a good idea to build mostly-permanent infrastructure as a stopgap until you get the project you really want (in this case, light rail to Ballard) – you just end up with a pointless and redundant line once the project you want gets built.

    One thing I hate about our voting system is that any given vote could send a bajillion messages, and the chances of your intended message being the one that gets out is almost nil.

    Of the different projects that will have to compete for a smaller pot, what do you think are the highest priorities? Greenways, downtown cycletracks, or something else?

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Here’s another question: Why would neighborhood greenways come solely from the bicycle program budget? Just because people who bike like them and will use them does not mean it’s a bike project.

      Similarly, why should a rechannelization that reduces injuries to people inside cars by 70 percent come out of the bicycle budget?

      I wish we could just have one big transportation budget with safety for all users as a top-tier priority. Or I wish the bicycle program monies were reserved for things like bike parking, route signage, education, etc and paving, rechannelization and neighborhood greenway projects were simply considered “transportation” projects (which they are).

      It’s the same on the federal level. Every budget season, we have to fight desperately to retain the miniscule federal budget for walking and biking projects. Imagine if the federal government simply passed a nationwide complete streets policy and mandated all users be considered in all federally-funded projects.

    • Gary says:

      Well we happen to have a good example of that. They stopped running the waterfront street car, replaced it with a green painted bus rt 99, and now nobody rides it. If they had used an antique bus, maybe but a regular even free bus? Didn’t work.

  11. Liz McKay says:

    Why is this a good point?
    “why should a family struggling to keep their 1990 Ford Taurus running pay the same as someone’s third Jaguar? ”

    There’s a good answer for that. Because the Taurus and the Jaguar cost the same from a DOL and road maintenance perspective.

    The owner of the third Jaguar does not “pay the same” as the owner of the Ford Taurus – the sheer cost of the car, taxes on that purchase, car maintenance and repairs, etc are much higher for a Jaguar than for a Ford Taurus. Your logic here really appears to be that someone with a Jaguar should be charged more because they can afford more. And there’s no good justification for that.

  12. Clark in Vancouver says:

    A similar thing was tried here in B.C. where there was going to be a $75 vehicle levy that would have paid for more transit. It was not popular and basically took down the provincial government of the time. (Along with another scandal.)
    The levy didn’t happen but we still ended up with really good transit. There now instead is a gas tax to fund it.

    I think that things like this should not be funded with a gas tax or a motor vehicle levy. Car drivers, however subsidized, are mostly doing it because they have no better options. It’s counter productive to “blame” and “penalize” them when they’re merely going along with the system. I say, change the system. While working to get a street here and there to have a bike lane is needed, it’ll be a fight every time. What is better is to look at the long term view and work to change the guidelines. Traffic engineers work from design guidelines so things like bike lanes should be in there as a normal part of any street design. Wheelchair ramps at one time were new and now they’re common because disabled people lobbied to get them into the guidelines.

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