I am skeptical about Proposition 1 in Seattle, better known as “$60 car tabs.” Aside from the obvious nightmare for advocates of trying to pass a proposition with a price increase in the title, I was skeptical of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1. I mailed in my ballot with a "yes" vote because I managed to overcome my concern that it didn’t do enough to change Seattle’s transportation culture. The fact is that it does make it a bit harder to drive, and a bit easier to live car free.
When I was in public health and working to eliminate the calamitous health effects of smoking, we landed on a mission statement that I thought summed up what we were trying to do: make King County the hardest place to smoke, and the easiest place to quit smoking, and live smoke free. It seemed an elegant way of capturing what success would look like. The statement was deemed too controversial, but I have a version I use when I think of transportation projects or proposals: does it make it harder to drive, and easier to live car free?
By that standard, Proposition 1 doesn’t look all that attractive. It doesn’t change policy and it doesn’t deal with what I consider to be the crucial challenge of making it easier to give up using a car: land use. It’s simple economics in my view, aggregate the demand for transit through more density and you reduce the costs and increase competition. That means cheaper transit, more routes, and a world oriented around transit rather than the car.
On the other hand, Proposition 1 applies a cost to driving that, like the rain, falls equally upon the rich and the poor. Generally that is the definition of a regressive tax. I think taxes should do three things, in no order, generate revenue for good government, redistribute wealth, and tax things we want less of. Proposition 1 does tax something I want less of, cars, but it seems to do that at a disproportionate expense to the poor at a time when prices for everything else are rising and income is falling.
When I consider the arguments from either side, my softer Green Angel on one shoulder and my harder-edged Socialist Devil on the other, I feel somewhat torn. Why support a proposition that increases the costs for driving disproportionately on people who are using it to survive and doesn’t really address the fundamental resource issues that create auto dependence in the first place?
The reason why I voted “yes” on Proposition 1 comes down to my standard, does this measure make it harder to drive and easier to live without a car. In the end, in spite of the fact that the campaign would likely not associate itself with my reasoning, I think Proposition 1 does internalize for people some of the costs of driving and internalize some of the inherent economic benefits of transit and alternatives.
As far as increasing the externalized (and subsidized) costs of driving, $60 is a rather modest addition to driving a car, but incrementally enough that I feel that it isn’t going to break many budgets. Yes, I know, there are poor people for whom $60 a year is a lot. But my guess is that there are far more people out there for whom $60 represents the last straw, the final cost that provokes carlessness or at least coming up with a plan to be car-free.
The proposition is better on the “making it easier” side of things, which more than offsets its costs to car owners. It dedicates money to increasing the speed and reliability of transit on eight major corridors, including improving access to light rail and boosting bus service corridors. Speed and predictability, coupled with additional expense for owning a car, are likely to push more demand for transit.
Proposition 1 also sets aside more funding to simple things like sidewalks and crosswalks. What has made me distrust the City Council more than anything — even more than theur unalloyed support of the deep bore tunnel — was their abolition of the so-called “head tax,” a modest tax on businesses for employees who didn’t use transit. The tax cost the average business in the city $92 dollars per year, the price of a couple of toner cartridges for a printer. But that tax generated $4.5 million for capital projects like sidewalks. Proposition 1 can help us catch up with what the Council foolishly gave away.
Finally, if we’re going to make the shift to high capacity transit — moving lots of people in fewer vehicles — then we’ve got to start planning and building more rail projects. I know this seems like a pipe dream to some, but without a plan, federal and other sources of funding won’t flow to Seattle. Haven’t we learned our lesson from the 1960s' failure of Forward Thrust, when we rejected planning and putting money into a system and the federal money went south?
My reasoning might be a bit ideologically impure and random, but in the end, I think that Proposition 1 does get us closer — a little bit — to making things we all want, like transit, cheap and easy, and things we’re tired of doing and paying for, like sitting in traffic and building highways, more expensive. That’s why I voted for Proposition 1.
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