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'T' words on the mayor's mind: transit, transportation, and taxes

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said today that he likes the ideas the city council is pursuing on taxes and vehicle fees to improve transportation. But he would like the council to look at a bigger parking tax hike.

Unless I spaced out on some passing mention, Mayor Mike McGinn conducted an entire press conference without using his favorite "T" word, tunnel. Instead he spoke at length about taxes, transportation, and transit.

The mayor said he is in agreement with Seattle City Council on considerable parts of its work to raise additional revenue for transportation projects. He pointed to the council's discussion of creating a transportation benefit district to raise at least $20 per year in license fees on any vehicle registered in the city, noting that he had spoken weeks ago for such a fee. "The only way" to impose the fee is through a transportation benefit district, he said. He said the proposal being pursued by council transportation committee Chair Tom Rasmussen is "very much in alignment with what we have proposed."

He also said a higher fee than $20 per year would offer advantages in addressing transit, but it would require a public vote to go higher (up to $100 per year can be raised). It won't happen this year, he said, and the city may want additional financing flexibility from the state legislature both under the transportation benefit district law as well as on other statutes.

On a parking tax increase to 12.5 percent from the current 10 percent, McGinn said, "I think we have some difference of opinion and we have some agreement. ... We (in the mayor's office) are prepared to explore a higher level of parking taxes because we think the need for basic infrastructure is greater. We will explore that."

McGinn said most of the council's parking money would go to Mercer West street improvements and the seawall project (both related to a downtown tunnel or other replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct). But he said a higher tax could help with both infrastructure needs and improvements around walking, biking, and transit usage. McGinn said the city is using its Bridging the Gap transportation levy as promised to voters (he supported the levy, passed while he was an environmental activist). But the basic funding for the Seattle Department of Transportation has eroded badly, in large part because of a drop of $21 million from 2008 in the real estate excise tax and dedicated transportation revenues.

McGinn said the council's release of money for a new transit master plan was a step forward, but that it had delayed planning for two months, potentially creating problems for putting any transit tax proposal on the ballot next year. He showed some flexibility about whether to ask voters to approve a light-rail line serving Ballard, downtown, and West Seattle, a vote that he campaigned for last year. He suggested the master plan should demonstrate the value of that light-rail line, but "you have got to go where the facts lead."

He said, "I personally believe that connecting our westwide neighborhoods to light rail is in the long-term interests of the city."

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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