A MODEST PROPOSAL | About cats, cars and bicycles

The City Council has decided how much they’ll ask us to tax ourselves again for road improvements.

The goal is to put another clunk in the coffers of the Seattle Department of Transportation by increasing the license-tab fee on registered vehicles of city residents, ranging from City Councilmember Jean Godden’s $40 proposal to Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s $80. 

One cliché about Seattle is that we love to tax ourselves, that we’ve never met a levy we didn’t like, that fees are the price of — if not freedom — civic responsibility.

No matter how big the car-tab proposal is that hits the November ballot, it will be a hard-sell. It could well stall.

Not so easy to find support

The citizen’s panel behind this proposal is co-chaired by two of Mayor Mike McGinn’s staunchest allies. The first is Craig Benjamin, the communications director of the Environmental Priorities Coalition. The second is David Hiller, a McGinn staffer and former lobbyist for the Cascade Bicycle Club.

In 2006, Seattle passed the $365 million, nine-year Bridging the Gap levy, meant to plug the potholes and fill the cracks in our infrastructure. This new fee on cars, trucks, minivans, hybrids and Hummers would be used for road improvements, including bike and pedestrian projects. 

It is different in purpose from the Bridging the Gap levy in that it would not so much fix the current system but realign it to Mayor McGinn’s “Walk, Bike, Ride” initiative. The purpose of “Walk, Bike, Ride” is “making walking, biking and riding transit the easiest ways to get around in Seattle.”

Most people in the city would likely agree with the goal, yet many who would share in that vision will likely not support this ballot measure.

Few on a fixed income will support it. One dyed-in-the-wool 70-something liberal Democrat told me, “I can’t afford it.” 

Anyone living on a small pension or Social Security will not vote for this tab increase.

Neither will most people who are construction subcontractors, especially carpenters and landscapers, whose businesses have been hit particularly hard by the recession.

No one who is unemployed or underemployed will vote for it.

No one who lives in a multigenerational home, where family members own their own cars, will vote for it, either.

The fee won’t wash in some neighborhoods. In the South End, the proposed re-routing of Rainier Avenue South to create a bike-friendly corridor at South McClellan Street will turn voters away from this proposal. 

In Rainier Beach, a residential parking zone (RPZ) is being imposed on the community. Usually, RPZs are requested by neighborhoods, but no one who lives in the neighborhood wanted this one. It will pay for operating costs of the Henderson Sound Transit light-rail station. Those Seattle residents will be pinged $65 per vehicle to park in front of their own homes. 

Does anyone really believe a group of already-angry citizens will support a measure that will only make them madder?

Not all vehicles are the same

In a recent interview on KUOW, Craig Benjamin defined a middle-class home in Seattle as one with a car. Perhaps he and his co-chair would go door-to-door in Rainier Beach or in the neighborhoods along Martin Luther King Jr. Way for a reality check.

The problem with the proposal is that it puts all vehicles in one bucket. If you’re a laborer from Ballard driving a 30-year-old pickup truck with a Blue Book value of $200, you will be charged the same as a Beacon Hill trustfundarian in a new $95,000 Mercedes Benz GL500. 

For the laborer, that $80 fee would mean tools, two weeks of groceries or a chunk of rent; for the millionaire, that $80 is chump change.

If we’re going to tax ourselves for our rides, we should tax ourselves so those with the greatest ability to pay for expensive vehicles pay more than those of modest means. This could mean the average car tab of Laurelhurst would be higher than Lake City’s, or put another way, rich homeowners would be charged differently from single moms. That’s fair.

Treat bikes like cats

Would there be a shortfall? Perhaps. How could we make it up? By treating bicycles the same way we treat cats.

The most politicized bicycle advocates are dead-set against licensing bikes. They argue that any fee would discourage people from biking. It’s an argument that falls flat.

The precedent for registering bikes isn’t cars; it’s cats. Cat owners in Seattle don’t raise a ruckus about whenever fees for cat licenses are raised. Neither do dog owners growl a lot when Fido’s license comes due.

Though pet licenses are required by the City of Seattle, they’re more voluntary than mandatory. The city does not have the resources to hunt down miscreant feline aficionados. Our few Animal Control officers are more concerned with stray and dangerous dogs, yet they don’t go walking into backyards to see if Old Yeller is wearing his tags. 

Still, cat and dog owners voluntarily pay their license fees, even if their pets are apartment- and homebound. They pay those fees because they know it’s the right thing to do.

Can bicyclists in Seattle also do the right thing voluntarily? As one who has used bikes for commuting, exercise, shopping and pleasure, I have no problems with paying an annual fee. I use the road whether I’m riding my Motobecane or driving Old Paint.

If given the chance, bicyclists would pay a simple registration fee. It’s worked in other places; it can work in Seattle. 

When I was 14, my family moved to a town that required bicycle licenses. I went to the local fire station and plunked down $3 for a shiny, metal plate to fit on my bike. 

No one forced me, and no cop cruised by spying on me and my friends to see if our Schwinns were registered. For kids and pre-car teens, the simple act of paying that fee instilled a sense of civic pride. It made you feel grown-up.

It’s time for bicycle advocates in Seattle to grow up and support a registration fee.

CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist.

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