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.