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Seattle votes to charge $60 per car to fund transit

As of Wednesday. Updated results found here.

Seattle finally passed a Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1.

After a very disappointing loss in King County during the spring, Seattle decided to run its own version of the car tabs and sales tax measure intended to avoid transit cuts and add new service.

Early returns show the measure winning big 59 to 41 percent (UPDATE: The margin appears to be growing. Wednesday returns showed 60-40). If past results are any clue, that margin could even grow as the votes of younger, more transit-hungry procrastinators are counted.

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Let’s be clear, Seattle just voted to charge $60 per year to own a car in the city, and to spend that money expanding and improving transit service. That’s a smart way to fund transit and make our growing city move faster and more reliably. We simply do not have the capacity for more people to drive alone to get around, and Seattle voters understand that.

Even though there are 76 cars for every 100 adult residents in Seattle (a number that is declining), only 41 percent of voters so far have voted against the measure. This suggests that half of the city’s car owners are happy to pay an extra $60 every year if it means the city has better transit. That’s really cool, and pretty much demolishes the meme that Seattleites who drive cars see the city’s walk, bike and transit efforts as a “war on cars,” a concept that only exists these days on blathering KIRO talk radio shows (where it belongs).

We’re all in this growing city together, and we need to find ways to get people where they need to go without adding more cars to the roads. Seattle keeps adding jobs and residents, so we need to add transit service to keep up. It doesn’t matter if you own a car or not, Seattle residents are united behind the vision of a city with better mass transit.

There are more transportation battles ahead. The state legislature needs to pass a transportation package at some point. Cascade Bicycle Club reports that at least 26 of their 30 endorsed candidates have won or appear to be winning their races. And since transit service is not on the chopping block now, there may be more bargaining power against bad highway expansion projects. Or maybe we could reinstate the ability for local governments to use a motor vehicle excise tax to raise needed safe streets and transit funding. That would levy a tax based on a vehicle’s value, a much more fair option than a regressive sales tax or even a flat-rate vehicle license fee. But the state legislature is still split, so it’s not yet clear if they will be more productive than they were in 2014.

More locally, Seattle needs to develop a transportation measure to replace Bridging the Gap, which expires at the end of 2015. It is important that the city piece together a strong package that funds safe streets and building better transit infrastructure in addition to increasing maintenance for our growing road and bridge repair backlog. But it also needs to pass in an election without a major national campaign, which tends to favor more conservative voters. So passing a truly ambitious package that fully funds the Bike Master Plan is going to take a ton of organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts.

And, of course, every City Councilmember will be up for election next year thanks to the city’s district elections law. Safe streets needs to be a topic on the minds of every successful candidate for the Council in every part of the city, and that’s going to take a lot of work from a lot of people.

Looking even further, Sound Transit 3 should be ready for a vote in 2016. We need that package to be even more bold than any of the previous ST votes. This could be our best chance to dramatically expand regional high capacity transit service and build truly fast transit service to Ballard.

But Tuesday’s vote to pass a transit measure using a funding mechanism that is not an easy pill for many people to swallow shows that Seattle is beyond ready to go all the way on smart transportation plans. So let’s make it happen.

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23 responses to “Seattle votes to charge $60 per car to fund transit”

  1. Allan

    I was 50/50 on this one but I voted against it. I use the bus maybe 20 times a year so now it will cost me an extra $3 a trip whether I want it or not. If traffic comes to a halt it does not really slow me down as my routes on the bicycle avoid most of it anyway. I only drive once a week or so and I usually reserve that for round trips over 30 miles away from the city. So the deal is do buses really help cyclists? Since that is my primary mode of transportation it is my biggest concern and I just don’t know the answer to that. Maybe bringing automobile traffic to a dead halt would benefit cyclists even more. Maybe than more people would be forced to ride if they want to get somewhere. Just imagine if bicycles were the only mode of transportation that actually worked and a cargo bike was faster than a truck.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Absolutely more bus service is good for biking. I didn’t think this was really questioned.

      A: Buses are one way to move people without putting more cars on the roads. Bikes are another way. We need both.

      B: The more places that have quality bus service, the easier it is to access more places more quickly using a bike and bus combination. This is even more true with bike share.

      C: Pollution. It’s bad for people who bike, and cars spew a lot of it.

      D: Parking and land use decisions as well as development loans are decided in part based on car use. Better transit service is needed to make sure developments with a pedestrian focus and fewer expensive on-site parking spaces succeed. The ramifications of this on the future of Seattle (including its bikeability) are huge.

      E: Seattle is the heart of a region, much of which is beyond the bike-only range for a lot of people. But combing transit and bikes makes it much more possible for people to avoid driving all the way. That’s vital.

      There are many more reasons. Anyone else want to add some?

      1. kommish

        Among a lot (a LOT) of other reasons (srsly, just go read the Seattle Transit Blog and Bikenomics):

        a lot of people who ride the bus are people who cannot afford a car but are not physically able to ride a bike. I can’t remember the last time I took a bus trip across Seattle and there wasn’t at least one person with a wheelchair/walker/other assistive device boarding.

      2. asdf2

        1) A way to get home if you’re out riding and something goes wrong with your bike. The safety net provided by buses means not needing to carry tubes and tools on routine neighborhood bike trips.
        2) There are lots of great one-way bike rides that involve taking the bus the other direction to keep the distance reasonable.

    2. Allan

      Ok, if more money for buses really helps, why not just raise the bus fares? Several times at the end of summer I opted for the bus to return from the U district to West Seattle. That was because I had bought bicycle frames and don’t like cycling very far with a frame around my neck. Several times during the summer we bicycled up to Arlington, and took buses back. It was a nice leisurely ride. The round trip would have been a mad dash. Each of those trips could have cost more and I would have been happy to pay it. I don’t like handing more money to government in big chunks. When that happens it is like more and more freedom is taken away.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Because some people can’t easily afford higher fares, and higher fares would be a disincentive to take the bus.

        Transit is good for everyone, whether you use it or not. That’s why it makes sense to pay for it outside of fare increases. We need more people on transit, and we can only do that if it becomes a more attractive option. Faster buses and come more often helps achieve this goal. More expensive buses do not.

      2. kommish

        Because they already raised them a bunch already. I forget the exact percentage, but it’s a lot. For people taking occasional long trips it’s fine, but not for people who are trying to get to work and back every day – that’s almost $6/day. For a lot of people on the bus, that’s nearly an hour’s work. Or looking at it another way, 1/8 of their income, give or take.

      3. asdf2

        If you raise bus fares, fewer people will ride. Which means revenues decline, which means you have to raise bus fares even more, which means even fewer people will ride. And the cycle repeats until we have no buses and no riders at all.

      4. Downtown Commuter

        I think it’s an unexpected consequence that the people who can afford a raise in bus fare and who might actually be willing to pay it are provided free or subsidised ORCA cards from our employers. I would be willing to pay more for a service I depend on, but I get it for free.

    3. ChefJoe

      Allan, do you ride the bus to work when snow/ice comes in winter or is predicted ? A lot of cyclists I know certainly use the bus as their inclement weather backup.

      1. Allan

        I am now retired but I rode 7 miles to work(one way) in all weather, even in snow when the buses were stuck. I very occasionally put my bike on the bus in a severe down pour. I own a set of studded cross tires which I will mount up on one of my bikes soon, just in case. I sold the bike with studded mtb tires to my son. (cheap) I do have a car for the worst weather as well, I have also gone 5 months on a tank of gas in the summer. One of the greatest kicks you can ever have is to bicycle past a mob who has been waiting at the bus stop for an hour because of the snow and a bus that never comes. The snow is my friend but cold rain sucks.

    4. Alkibkr

      Allan, do you ever park your car on a Seattle street? Free parking? If so, you can consider the $60 an annual parking fee for taking up space on the street that could have been used for bus or bike lanes.

  2. Allan

    I wonder if car owners would pay $60 a year to improve the bicycle infrastructure so that traffic would get better?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      No, we’re probably not there yet. We sort of tried that back in 2011 with that Prop 1 and it didn’t get far (same for streetcars).

    2. Cheif

      Something tells me that the same people who literally threaten my life with machinery on a regular basis aren’t going to do a complete 180 and agree to fund bike infrastructure. People who insist on dominating others with their destructive habits of laziness shouldn’t be given the choice to offset that type of behavior; the tax should be mandatory.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        That’s such a small percentage of people who drive, though. As this vote shows, most of them want other options.

    3. ChefJoe

      I wonder if cyclists would pay $60 a year to register/tag their bikes if it was dedicated to bike lanes.

      1. Allan

        Absolutely not because I own 12 bikes and I am often selling and building new ones. That would be $720 a year and more, that is stupid. I don’t often ride road bikes in Seattle but sometimes like when leaving my house for the Seattle to Portland or just a ride down to Auburn or Flaming Geyser Park. So no, it would be better to issue a $60 bicycle driver’s license and don’t forget the exam to go with it. I guess that would fly like a lead balloon too.

      2. Richard

        Well, there are two different ways you could take that question, and the answer is different.

        1) Would I *personally* think it is worth it to pay $60 a year for bike licensing in order to secure bike infrastructure development?
        Oh yeah, absolutely. No question, I’d do it.


        2) would it be worth it, as a city, to implement a $60 licensing fee for bikes in order to secure dedicated funding for bike infrastructure?
        HELL no. First, $60 per bike is EXCEPTIONALLY unreasonable in the context of the cost of a utilitarian bike. If you’re really limited for funds, you can find a working, usable, used bike for less than your proposed cost. Compare that to a car, where the equivalent utilitarian/used option is still probably $1k – $60 would be just over 5% for a utilitarian car, vs. >100% for a bike. Second, numerous cases have shown the administrative costs of implementation would exceed the revenues if it were set at a more reasonable level. Third, infrastructure is important, but from a safety standpoint, more riders is shown to impact safety even more than more infrastructure. Yes, ridership usually increases when infrastructure does, but if you add a prohibitive fee, you’re going to suppress (if not completely undermine) that. Finally, biking is currently a critical option for low income families that cannot afford vehicles; making a fee that impacts these users is by nature going to increase income inequality.

        So am I willing to pay for it? YES! Absolutely! But that does NOT make it a good idea.

      3. Josh

        Only if it were accompanied by an equivalent tax that brought motorists somewhat close to paying their own way on local streets, which currently are funded primarily with property and sales taxes that I’m already paying.

        I don’t really object to a 50%+ general-fund subsidy for streets, as long as they’re streets that I can use, but an awful lot of infrastructure is designed primarily or exclusively around the needs of private passenger cars, and I think I already subsidize them enough.

  3. Clark in Vancouver

    This was tried in British Columbia in the late ’90s and people freaked out and it resulted in the government being not re-elected soon after. That party still has not formed a government since.
    But times are different now. It might fly now but hard to say.

    I sometimes think that instead of charging a tax on each car, why not just reduce some of the subsidy to auto infrastructure and get the money that way?

    1. In this case (a city measure) the answer is basically that not a lot of money for “auto infrastructure” goes through the Seattle DOT. The city’s biggest transportation projects are mostly repaving projects that benefit people biking a lot: they make road surfaces more consistent and less slippery and often include complete-streets redesigns… and at this point the city is behind on road maintenance to a degree that actually will cost us more in the long run than if we had spent the money to do the maintenance on schedule. That’s the situation on arterials, while side streets seem destined to crumble completely (some Neighborhood Greenway projects result in money going toward side street surface improvements, though not all that much).

      The big transportation infrastructure money goes through the state. And the state really doesn’t want to pay for transit operations.

      One part of the auto infrastructure subsidy the city does control is parking. There was/is a Sawant proposal to charge a tax on downtown parking (plus an employee head tax) to fund additional transit operations. The employee head tax is probably the more controversial part.

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