Seattle's car tabs: Will residents get their money's worth?

The city knows it has a problem with deferred maintenance of streets and bridges. But the city (and we voters) keep approving new projects.

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A bicyclist heads south on University Bridge

The city knows it has a problem with deferred maintenance of streets and bridges. But the city (and we voters) keep approving new projects.

Seattle voters are about to decide whether to pass or reject the 10-year, $60-dollar auto license tab fee, something that aims in surprisingly small part at the large problem of deferred maintenance for city roads and bridges.

The city has for years kept a long list of deferred maintenance of our existing infrastructure.  The city has estimated that there are 400 miles of streets that need repaving at a cost of $578 million.  Add replacing decades old bridges, along with some utility work, and $1.5 billion might not do the job.

Some might have expected that this new tab tax revenue, on the November ballot as Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1, would be directed at this backlog of deferred maintenance. But, as happens often when funding measures are presented on a ballot, the city prepares a teaser list of things the new tax money might pay for.

In this case the plan, approved by the City Council and the mayor, spreads the money around with the idea that it will please various voting consistencies.  Metro Transit riders will see investments for faster service.  Sidewalks will get a few blocks, and there will be more money for new bicycle lanes and free bike parking.  And  yes, some left over to complete a few projects that were part of a previous building projects list called “bridging the gap.” that ran over budget.

The city claims they will spend $18 million of the tab tax to plan where to put new streetcars, knowing streetcars cost 10 times more than electric trolly buses. Why is spending millions more to install rails rationalized as having more public appeal? Rails are also more dangerous for bicyclists.

Proposition 1, however, does almost nothing to reverse our problems with aging infrastructure. The tragedy in this misguided proposal is that little if any of the money will go for the most-needed deferred maintenance. Worse the language of the proposal will give the city the option to change their minds on how to spend the money. The city could redirect the money to pay for any frill it wants.

If you were to vote yes to the 10-year tab tax, it would assume you have total faith in how the city has spent your money in the past. Before you put your mark in the box, there are questions that need answers. If we have billions in deferred maintenance then why hasn’t the city been taking care of our city infrastructure as a part of routine management?  We trusted, has the city delivered?

Almost everyone accepts the harsh reality that everything wears out. The people you elect and those they hire to take care of our city should know this very well. If the roof leaks you fix it.  It is patently clear the city knows what’s worn out, but has instead spent money on less critical projects. What is necessary is setting aside money each year for that purpose. It’s an approach that requires self-discipline both in the people we elect and those of us who keep going along with all the new stuff we might want but don’t need.

While our mayor, City Council, and city department heads are responsible for maintaining our city, we the public share the obligation. When the city asks us if we want a new stadium, streetcar, monorail, tunnel, skatepark, trade center, playground, city hall, or waterfront park, we tend to say, “That would be just great.”  As baby-boomers, many of us have been accustomed to getting what we want and paying for it has merely been the act of charging it.  We end up buying or paying for countless new things but fail miserably to take care of what we already have.

We have spent all the revenue from the past on popular or glamorous projects spending very little on planned replacement. Our elected officials and civil servants shudder at the thought of spending a million dollars to replace a leaking water main or sewer line, but our city was eager to buy a new fleet of hybrid city cars long before the older models reached the end of their service life. The reality was the city wanted bragging rights to be the greenest of them all.

Responding to questions from Seattle City Council members about why Seattle’s streets were in such poor condition, city Transportation Director Peter Hann testified that Mother Nature’s harsh winter was what had caused roadways to break up. He also blamed global warming. Hann did not mention that Seattle, unlike some of its neighboring cities, does not routinely seal cracks in roadways that allow water to seep under the paving. Nor did Hann explain to council members that in the past the much-touted pothole rangers typically delivered a shovel full of asphalt into a hole and stomped it down instead of drying the hole and using a mechanical compactor to create repairs that last longer. (Finally, after years of faulty repair, someone finally got through to them because they now dry the hole first and use a mechanical compactor and seal the edges to create repairs that last longer.  Meanwhile, miles of roadways were damaged by poor repair protocols.)

Before we take major steps to increase near-permanent revenue with a tab tax, it would make better sense to reform the process our city uses to establish priorities. Private business as well as most citizens make the difficult choices in how to spend their money. Seattle planners and officials use focus groups rather than data that directs money to the most used investments and needed repairs.

Common sense would suggest the most-used bridges, roads, and civic infrastructure get funding and repair first. That simply doesn’t happen. The 200-plus planners for the Seattle’s Department of Transportation apparently respond to the most active pressure group to make those decisions. An example,  North 105 Street from Greenwood Avenue to Northgate Way is one of the most heavily traveled and damaged East-West roadways in the city. Seattle’s DOT, however, decided to rebuild Linden Avenue from 129th to 145th Street for $12 million. This stretch will receive new bikeways, sidewalks, and widening. While the Linden project will clearly update the street, 105th street has 90 percent more usage and isn’t getting resurfaced yet.

Using focus-group logic, the city decided to spend heavily on replacing street name signage. Sure, the old ones were harder to read, but old signs didn’t endanger lives and easily could have been a very low priority expenditure. Might there have been enough money for a warning sign for a bicycle pathway that went down a flight of stairs but wasn’t built because the money was spent?

Speaking of bicyclists  the Puget Sound Business Journal asked the mayor how often the Cascade Bicycle Club representatives visit his office. The club very actively urged the city to put Proposition 1 on the ballot and was involved in determining where the money would be spent. It’s no surprise that Proposition 1 will finance over 100 miles of new bike lanes and provide free parking for more bicycles.

Opponents assert Proposition 1 is a regressive tax. Paul Allen pays $60 bucks for his limo and the single-mom waitress who drives a 1983 Toyota pays the same. Of more note is that the automobile owner is chosen as the primary group to be taxed.  Since transportation is essential to everyone in our economy, it only seems logical that our entire population share in the cost of the transportation infrastructure. 

Editor's note: This article has been edited since it first appeared.


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