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Why I’m Voting to Let You Increase Your (and my) Vehicle License Fee

I just joined with my colleagues and voted to place a measure on the November general election ballot that, if approved by voters, will increase the annual Vehicle License Fee (VLF) for all vehicles registered in Seattle by $60 for 10 years.  The fee would raise $204 million over the next 10 years for transportation system improvements. (Last year, sitting as the City’s Transportation Benefit District Governing Board, we imposed a $20 VLF and yesterday the King County Council imposed a two-year VLF of $20 to help pay for Metro bus service.)

Why are these extra Seattle VLF revenues needed and what will they be used for?

One place to begin to get an answer is last week’s article at Crosscut.com by Douglas MacDonald, “The Sorry State of Seattle Streets.”  MacDonald was the secretary of transportation for the State of Washington from 2001 to 2007.  He paints a pretty grim picture about transportation infrastructure neglect and builds a persuasive case for paying attention to needed repairs sooner rather than later.  Here’s MacDonald’s key conclusion:

“At local, state, and national levels there is one simple, instructive beacon when it comes to figuring out where precious transportation investment should go: Fix It First. Funding for system preservation of eligible infrastructure assets is essential. Do not be pulled into staggering costs by improvident deferral of basic infrastructure re-investment in facilities already built. It’s true for highways and bridges; it’s true for transit systems and for their vehicle fleets; for that matter it’s true in water and sewer systems and in schools, courthouses and prisons.”

Led by Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, we have crafted a plan for the additional VLF revenue that is focused on (1) fixing what we have and (2) finishing what we’ve started.  It’s a pay-as-we-go approach that is focused, prudent and reasonable.  The plan positions us well to consider future expansion of bus rapid transit or light rail or streetcars when we are ready.  It focuses on future mobility and sustainability goals that build from our present reality.

If Seattle voters approve the November measure, about 30% of the new VLF revenues will be spent on repairs, maintenance and safety improvements for streets and sidewalks

About one half of the new revenues will be allocated for improving bus speed, reliability and access, especially along eight of our major bus corridors.  These improvements include street repairs, traffic signal synchronization and priority options for buses and enhanced bus stops to speed up loading and unloading. 

Here’s an interesting factoid: The average speed of Metro buses in Seattle is six to eight miles per hour.  The corridor improvements the new VLF revenues will provide will increase the average speed to 10 to 12 miles per hour, a significant service enhancement. 

These funds will also pay for design and engineering work and some early construction costs (primarily to unlock federal matching funds) for extending the First Hill/Broadway streetcar line north to Aloha Street (an addition of just over one-half mile) and connecting this line with the South Lake Union streetcar through the downtown core.  (The South Lake Union streetcar has been so successful that employers in the area—Group Health, Fred Hutch, Amazon and Vulcan—are paying the City to increase frequency of service during peak hours.) Connecting these two lines will complete the core building block of Seattle’s streetcar network, a major step toward future expansion of this system.

The final 22% of revenues will be used for pedestrian, bicycle and freight mobility projects.  These improvements include safety improvements for pedestrians at problem intersections, sidewalk repairs, school zone signage, safer walking routes to schools, and more painted crosswalks. 

All of these improvements are designed to protect our transportation system infrastructure, provide efficient alternative mode options, and continue progress toward an environmentally sustainable 21st century system. 

Additionally, I will encourage my colleagues to redirect the $20 VLF we imposed last year exclusively toward repair and maintenance work.  As MacDonald argues in his Crosscut.com article, delaying core repair and maintenance work only increases costs by allowing further deterioration.  His summary of how the maintenance backlog has grown over the past 12 years is proof positive that we must attack this backlog aggressively or else we will just fall further and further behind.  Redirecting the base $20 VLF starting next year to repair and maintenance work will provide $68 million over 10 years. 

Some critics suggest that voters in Seattle have been more than generous in approving extra transportation funding, especially in 2006 when the Bridging the Gap property tax levy was approved.  Yes, our voters are extremely generous, but that fact alone doesn’t change the need to efficiently and effectively maintain and manage our transportation system.  (The Bridging the Gap funds have been efficiently invested.  A very strong citizen oversight board monitors this work.  Their reports are available here.)

Unfortunately, we have allowed the system to tilt toward disrepair.  We haven’t been disciplined enough to maintain it at a level that is fiscally prudent and now we are faced with a long climb out of our backlog hole.  We could cast blame and point fingers or we can get on with the job of fixing what we have and completing what we’ve started. 

Finally, a word about our economy and the potential negative impact of these fees on people who are already struggling to make ends meet.  I recognize that this is not the best time to increase costs as many individuals and families in Seattle are going through very tough times.  Our unemployment rate continues to hover just above 9%.  There is a lot of apprehension about where our regional and national economy is headed.  And, frankly, the VLF is not the best revenue tool since it is a flat fee regardless the type of vehicle being licensed.

But, ironically, this is also an excellent time to push forward and get on with the essential work we need to do.  The construction bidding environment is very much in our favor: witness the lower-than-expected bids the state has received on various components of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project and the SR 520 bridge replacement.  This is also a body of work spread over 10 years that will protect and create jobs.

We must not fall further and further behind in maintaining our transportation system.  We must enhance our transportation options, especially transit services.  And, we must make wise decisions to continue building a system of mobility that is environmentally sustainable and effective.  That’s why I voted to allow Seattle residents to weigh in on whether they want to increase their vehicle license fee. 

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