The Seattle City Council has been powering through their budget votes in marathon days this week, and Councilmember Alex Pedersen tried to sneak a controversial bill through at the last minute with minimal community input. Last Friday night, Pedersen dropped his bill with cosponsors Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis that would add $20 in vehicle license fees (VLF or car tabs for short) to fund bridge maintenance by about $7.2 million annually. Wednesday, after a lengthy debate, the Seattle City Council passed a substitute bill enacting a $20 car tab increase but delaying a spending plan until April to allow an outreach and stakeholder engagement process, as The Urbanist and other transit advocates requested. Herbold voted against the substitute bill and Pedersen abstained.

An earlier vote to allow the vote on the substitute bill that Council President Lorena Gonzalez introduced narrowly passed 5-4, with Councilmember Debora Juarez joining the three sponsors but the fifth vote needed to block the substitute not materializing. Once forced to vote on the substitute bill, Juarez and Lewis joined the majority.

The $20 increase partially replaces the $60 in car tabs that are expiring at year’s end due to the wrench that Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 threw in the Prop 1 effort to renew the key Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) funding source. Seattle also has a $20 car tab fee set aside for road maintenance that isn’t expiring next year. Thus, the net effect is next year Seattle’s car tab fees will go from $80 to $40.

While the state Supreme Court ultimately struck down I-976 as unconstitutional, the uncertainty pushed the Seattle City Council to drop the imperiled revenue source and rely on sales tax alone. Mayor Durkan’s skimpy initial proposal for renewal kept the STBD sales tax at 0.1% rather than raising it, which meant a much smaller revenue stream and package. Councilmember Pedersen staunchly backed the Mayor’s approach and opposed amendments increasing the size of the proposal. Councilmember Tammy Morales led that change when she introduced an amendment doubling the STBD sales tax and measure; Council President Gonzalez offered a compromise amendment halfway between at 0.15% that everyone but Pedersen backed.

Even with the boost, the 0.15% sales tax version that the Council approved–and more than 80% of Seattle voters backed–is significantly smaller than the previous measure due to the loss of the car tab fees. That’s why some Councilmembers pledged to augment the smaller transit measure by increasing VLF once the state Supreme Court cleared the way. The $20 VLF boost has happened but whether it will go toward transit is still up in the air.

Transportation Chair Pedersen made a case that was semantic: “Buses use bridges, too.” He also argued the proposal didn’t need any delay or to be vetted with stakeholders. “Maintaining our bridges takes money and experts, not more process or lobbying at City Hall,” Pedersen said during deliberations. This is the opposite approach he’s taken to homelessness funding, where he introduced more reporting and process, and disputed expert advice in some cases–such as his vote against funding Nickelsville self-managed encampments that have been effective as serving some hard-to-reach homeless folks.

Earlier this year, Pedersen asked the City Auditor to analyze the condition and maintenance needs of City-owned bridges. The Auditor released a report stating between $34 million and $102 million would need to be invested annually to restore those bridges to good condition. Pedersen has not presented a plan for closing that funding gap; his VLF proposal would cover between 7% and 20% of those Auditor figures.

Similarly, the argument Councilmember Herbold presented boiled down to: if you care about bridge maintenance, this hasty proposal providing $3.6 million next year and $7.2 million per year–a pittance of the $34 million plus annual need–is the only way to express that. She worried the community engagement process Gonzalez’s amendment added “could conceivably result in no money for bridge maintenance.”

Regardless of the outcome of the process around spending the new car tab revenue, bridge maintenance will continue to face a huge deficit and Council will be left trying to line up tens of millions in annual bridge maintenance funding. The heavy lift remains either way, and the long-term strategic decisions continue to be punted. The Urbanist has endorsed downsizing Seattle car bridges to make more space for dedicated transit lanes, sidewalks, and bike lanes and reduce climate emissions and wear and tear on our bridges–and the cost of new bridges and future maintenance when we replace them.

Alice Lockhart of 350 Seattle stressed the climate implications that would go into converting a transit funding source to bridge and had the comment of the day: “If there were a climate note attached to this legislation it would read, ‘Are you kidding'”

How climate will factor into the final decision remains to be seen, but at least climate and transit advocates will have a chance to make their case via the process that Council has laid out. A community recommendation for the spending plan is due April 1st and Council indicated it will take the vote by May 1st.

Update: By the way, Councilmember Kshama Sawant also introduced a substitute version that would swap corporate payroll tax hike for the $20 bump in vehicle license fees as the funding source, arguing car tabs are a regressive tax. She failed to get a second. After the vote, she criticized her colleagues for “shamefully” raising car tab fees by $20. While progressive tax reform is long overdue, car tabs are not the ideal place to make the stand. Car culture itself is regressive and the bigger goal should be overcoming our car dependency rather than trying to keep it marginally more affordable with subsidies. Also worth noting that Sound Transit’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (also commonly referred as car tab) is one of progressive taxes we have since it hits high-dollar cars much harder than older, low-value cars. Extremely low-income households overall are less likely to own a car or multiple cars compared to rich households. Let’s not get it twisted.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

10 COMMENTS

  1. In effect a majority of the council decided to have a wider public discussion about where to spend the revenue from $20 tab fee. I don’t see any problem with that.

    I would disagree with the author’s comment that Chair Pedersen’s comment that buses use bridges too is simply semantics. It is a reality, and due to weight buses like trucks (which pay a separate vehicle weight fee) cause more damage than a passenger car. Buses don’t fly.

    However the author — whether intentionally or not — did raise the most important point: the $20 tab fee will raise around $7.2 million/year, whereas the State Auditor — not SDOT — has estimated Seattle’s annual costs to fix its bridges and infrastructure at $34 to $102 million/year, the median between the two being $68 million/year for a total cost of $1.2 billion, basically for decades in the future. Kudos to the author for raising the very difficult future council (and citizen) decisions on how to fund this in the coming decades.

    Seattle isn’t the only city that ignored critical if politically unsexy infrastructure during good economic times, except Seattle has challenging and expensive topography for infrastructure, especially bridges. Hopefully the council discussion this spring will address the much bigger annual funding issue the State Auditor raises for bridges, which is almost ten times the annual revenue need that will be raised from the $20 tab fee.

    The Urbanist has advocated for downsizing “car” bridges for transit only bridges, although I am not sure how much savings that creates when entire bridges still need to be replaced, and in many if not most cases repaired, and in the end will be a political decision. Considering Magnolia and West Seattle residents made no loss of car capacity their number one demand for bridge repair or replacement my guess is cars will be a major part of the future bridges.

    I am also not quite sure how an analysis of climate change — if about climate change rather than Urbanism or transit — will affect bridge repair or replacement. Metro hopes to electrify its fleet by 2026 but at the cost of reduced service, but at the same time electric /cars/vehicles will become much more popular by 2026 too, and GM just announced a new, much cheaper battery with a 450 mile range that will make EV’s price competitive with gas/diesel cars, and Amazon is moving to electric delivery trucks.

    My hope is the council discussion this spring on how to appropriate the revenue from the $20 tab fee, while at the same time raising the revenue for $68 million/year just for bridge repair/replacement, focuses more on mobility and transportation rather than climate change, which I see as a wash between different forms of future transportation.

    • Hi Daniel, my point was that only so many funding sources exist for bus service, but bridges could get funding from a lot of places, like the gas tax, impact fees, or a new levy, for example. Buses uses bridges, but they represent a fraction of the traffic on them and the problem of congestion is created by private vehicles.

      Electric cars will not solve the geometry problem for cars, nor the climate problem. They’re a stopgap but not a fix. They cut the lifecycle emissions of a car roughly in half over their combustion engine counterpart. However, Seattle climate goal is to eventually go net zero, not simply cut transportation emissions in half. Making walking, biking, and transit more enticing and efficient requires fewer cars on the street in dense neighborhoods. If we simply electrify rather than scale back the quantity of cars, we won’t realize the quality of life gains or fully the address the environmental issues cars create. Unfortunately, brake dust means that even electric cars generate local air pollution issues. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/cleaner-cars-cradle-grave

      • Couldn’t we use those fees for transit, too though? For example, if the city can pass a gas tax to pay for bridges, then it can pay a gas tax for transit. If the money comes from the state, the same idea applies — it really comes down to the politics. It is easier to get money from the state to fix Seattle’s bridges or improve its transit system? Hard to say.

        Personally, I think a gas is better. It reduces gas consumption, and is at least flat, not regressive. The planned car tab tax is a fee, which means that a Lexus pays the same as a 20 year old Corolla. Thus it is the worse in both respects — more regressive, and worse for the environment.

      • Thanks Doug. The old adage is if you can’t grow it you have to mine it. Both growing (fertilizer) and mining (diesel machines) require petroleum.

        You are correct that electric cars produce carbon emissions from the mining needed for rare metals for the batteries, and just the metal (steel and aluminum) alone. Of course so does light rail, including the massive amounts of concrete, and upzoning which requires construction. Granted walking and biking are low carbon footprints (sidewalks, electric bikes, etc.) but you still have to live someplace. Transit, especially buses, emit carbon too. Wind farms and solar panels require huge amounts of mining.

        Net (zero) carbon neutral is a term often misunderstood (not by you). It includes offsets, such as maintaining carbon dioxide sinks like the Amazon and even new technologies to bury carbon. Carbon taxes and exchanges recognize life will always include some carbon emissions, but price offsets into the emissions.

        The fact is the majority of Americans probably won’t move to an urban setting in which they walk/bike most of the time, so electric cars and delivery vehicles make a pretty dramatic reduction in carbon emissions without asking citizens to change their lives at all. A good example was the appliance efficiency standards Pres. Carter adopted, especially for refrigerators. At the time manufacturers predicted citizens would object because the new appliances would be materially worse and less convenient. Anyone today want a refrigerator from the early 1970’s, even though a new refrigerator uses much less electricity.

        The low hanging fruit on reducing carbon emissions are those steps that don’t ask citizens to change their lives, or result in inconvenience, like modern appliances. Right now that is electric cars which if equally priced are better anyway, and cleaner ways to produce electricity rather than just reducing electricity consumption, because neither step requires forcing citizens to do something they don’t want to do, which is notoriously difficult, even wearing a mask during a pandemic.

        You are correct electric cars won’t solve traffic congestion, but that is not a climate issue, and we are currently spending $74 billion and emitting a lot of carbon to build light rail whose main purpose is to ease that congestion.

        For those who enjoy the aesthetics of Urbanism, and believe an absence of cars is necessary to create a vibrant and rich street retail scene, then the remedy there is to ban cars on certain streets, or create car free zones (which will still likely require parking for cars on the edges because vibrant retail usually requires outside shoppers too, and those shoppers have to get there). But that is not realistic in many areas like Sammamish, let alone rural areas, so electric cars are the solution.

        For the bridge funding issue, I am sure that will be a discussion for many years in Seattle, and will leave that up to the council because it really is a political issue.

        • Too much crap here to shovel in totality, but in short: single-family-home sprawl is much more carbon-intensive and environmentally destructive than dense cities in nearly every way. https://www.theurbanist.org/2015/12/24/map-of-the-week-average-annual-household-carbon-emissions/

          You can bemoan upzoning and construction but folks are having kids and people are moving here; housing them in sprawling exurbia will make congestion worse and add way more emissions. Land use is the forgotten dimension of climate change, but simply sprawling forever becaue we’re scared of density is simply untenable and it is bunk. https://www.theurbanist.org/2016/11/01/climate-argument-st3/

          Congestion relief is not transit’s main purpose. More here: https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/05/17/measure-east-links-success/

          • Doug, your first link to the 2013 UC Berkley study notes that when carbon emissions from suburban commuters to the city core are allocated to the suburbs, rather than to the city employers and city core who demanded their employees travel to the core, suburbs have higher carbon emissions per resident than urban areas (with smaller urban areas having fewer than larger urban areas).

            Putting aside the fact many commute to large urban cores because they cannot afford to live there, and in the past their employers forced them to commute to the urban core, my point, or hope, is electric buses, rail, electric cars, and working from home will eliminate carbon emissions from commuting. I think we can all celebrate that.

            Your second link is to your own article on East Link from May 2017. At that time you wrote:

            “It is a safe bet that East Link will meet ridership projections, which are pegged at 50,000 by 2030, as the whole region booms–with Bellevue and Redmond, where East Link serves, among the leaders in job and population growth. There’s ample reasons to expect healthy ridership. For one, Sound Transit made the projections before an unexpectedly large regional population boom. Secondly, regional transit use is trending up. Seattle’s transit ridership growth rate led the nation, and the light rail extension to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium is already operating at 2018 projections.”

            In 2019 ridership on light rail increased by less than 1%. There is, and never was, any likelihood East Link would reach 50,000 riders in 2030.

            You link to your own article to support your statement “congestion relief is not transit’s main purpose [although I was referencing light rail which is grade separated]”.

            But you yourself wrote in your 2017 post:

            “Cutting motor traffic seemed like defining transit on highway engineer terms to me. Plus, Sound Transit was careful when promoting its successful ST3 package to advertise an alternative to sitting in traffic, rather than a cure for congestion. Meeting ridership projections is important, but “flawless execution” suggests setting a high bar just to see transit fail.”

            What is the difference between — in your words — an alternative to sitting in traffic and relieving traffic congestion? I can understand you don’t believe one of light rail’s goals is to reduce traffic congestion, but that is not how ST sold East Link and ST 3.

            Finally, I am not an opponent of upzoning, but ask that it not be sold for what it is not, and won’t do. Upzoning, especially in wealthy neighborhoods, incentivizes developers to demolish and replace the least expensive and most affordable properties with new construction, when new construction — especially in expensive neighborhoods — is always the least affordable. This development is at the expense of areas that could use some development, like the Rainier Valley, because upzoning and developing expensive neighborhoods is much more profitable for developers.

            Upzoning destroys the existing, older, more affordable housing to create more but less affordable housing. Look at Seattle: despite the numbers you cite above for population and housing growth housing costs have skyrocketed, most notably during a pandemic. We have created lots of unaffordable housing, but not affordable housing, through upzoning without public subsidies.

            As long as the neighborhood residents are in favor of upzoning I don’t have any objection, but don’t be surprised when SDOT anticipates larger bridges in the future to handle that capacity, and don’t claim upzoning and new high end construction is affordable, or somehow moral.

            I don’t have any fear from density, or Urbanism. I have lived in NY and London. Both were exciting and diverse, but also prohibitively expensive, loud, dirty, dangerous in areas, packed everywhere, and despite having mature subway systems the streets were packed with cars, taxis, motorcycles, buses, you name it. Quite frankly I don’t ever see this area reaching that kind of population or density to support that kind of retail rich environment, even in downtown Seattle or Bellevue. Despite huge housing growth most of downtown Bellevue — 106th, 108th, 112th, is a retail wasteland.

            Suburbia is not so much a choice but a reality. People get married, have kids, and need schools, safety, and space. It isn’t as exciting as London or NY, but it has its rewards.

            Neither lifestyle is more moral than the other, and that is my point. Density won’t solve global warming. Let people choose the lifestyle that best fits their lives at the moment, and remove density and lifestyle from morality and global warming and let different lifestyles, from the farm to the suburb to the smaller urban center like Seattle to the really dense areas like London and NY compete based on the living experience (which I can assure you in the largest metropolises has to do with how much money you have).

  2. So climate activists want the bridges for themselves and their transportation choices, buses, bikes and walking. But they don’t want bridges for all the necessary things that are provided to them in our well stocked drugstores, grocerystores and all other retail stores. And they don’t want to allow any people who have cars to use the bridges. And they don’t want to have any taxes go toward bridge maintenance. That seems to be the message of your article – or did I miss something?

    • I don’t think anybody here is suggesting that nobody be allowed to drive their car over the Ballard bridge.

      The issue is that, the way induced demand works, once you have a wide road that’s free, people will find a way to use it and clog it up with a lot of low-value trips, or trips that could have easily been done with public transit.

      Reducing the aggregate number of car trips is important for a city’s quality of life. More cars over the Ballard bridge means more cars clogging up the downtown streets to get between Elliott Ave. and I-5. Accommodating them means excessively long wait times for anyone on foot or on a bus to cross Mercer St. The trick is to right-size the bridge so you have enough capacity for the trips that really need to happen, without encouraging excessive driving for trips that either don’t need to happen to begin with, or could easily be accomplished with public transit.

      Personally, I’d keep the Ballard bridge at two lanes per direction, since that’s what it currently is. Under the assumption that there will be separate bridge for light rail, there’s unlikely to be much in the way of buses going over the bridge, so we don’t need bus lanes. But, I would avoid widening it to three and make any added width of a new bridge go towards better sidewalks.

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