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Transportation fix – finally? Or is it the wrong plan?

One reason David Miler doesn't like Proposition 1 - it pays for just nine blocks of new sidewalks, while Seattle has many miles where kids walk in the street to school, as they do on 20th Ave. NE near Sacajawea Elementary.
Keith Seinfeld
One reason David Miler doesn't like Proposition 1 - it pays for just nine blocks of new sidewalks, while Seattle has many miles where kids walk in the street to school, as they do on 20th Ave. NE near Sacajawea Elementary.

If you ever drive or walk in Seattle, it’s easy to spot places where the streets and bus system could work better. Voters have a chance to make improvements this fall, if they approve a $60 licensing fee on every car in the city.

However, some complain that the measure would cost too much and deliver too little. 

What Proposition 1 does:

  • Adds a $60 annual fee on all vehicles licensed in the city of Seattle (your annual car tabs).
  • Raises about $20 million per year for ten years, to be spent on transportation projects.  
  • Divides the spending into three broad categories – 49% for transit-related projects, 29% for street improvements, and 22% for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.  

There’s a vigorous debate because opponents have raised questions about whether Proposition 1 delivers what it promises. Opponents object to the details, saying:

  • The money is spent on the wrong things, including 9% toward planning for a future network of streetcars.
  • It gives too much discretion to Seattle’s Department of Transportation.
  • The vehicle fee is too much of a hardship, particularly for lower income people, and particularly since King County raised the vehicle fee this year by $20 to fund Metro bus transit.

Says David Miller, a leading opponent and community activist from Maple Leaf:

“We are really not getting what we’re told we’re getting. We’re not getting more bus hours or bus routes, we are not getting a significant number of streets fixed, we are not getting the sidewalks we need.”

Opponents also say a better plan could come forward with more public input.  

However, Proposition 1 was created by a citizen advisory committee. The 14-member committee polled the public, and held community meetings in different neighborhoods. They reached out to advocacy groups and to low-income communities.

Ref Lindmark, a co-chairman (who also describes himself as a citizen activist) says the committee tried to avoid serving narrow interests:

“At the end, we sat down and said, What’s the right thing? And the term ‘balance’ came to us. That is, we need a balanced package.”

The committee deliberately chose to let city officials decide which projects can best meet the goals, using master plans already in place, instead of creating a specific “shopping list” of projects. 

That may have backfired, as the citizen committee and City Council are being criticized for not giving voters a specific list of projects that they can count on being delivered, and for including money for long-term planning, instead of targeting the funds for projects that can be completed now.

Even supporters admit the proposal would pay for things that in theory should be done out of the normal transportation budget. But they say transportation budgets took a hit when the car-tab fee was slashed (via a Tim Eyman initiative) a decade ago, and recently gas and sales tax revenue slowed down.  What used to be basic government planning is now on a special wish-list. 

A dozen Washington cities have recently raised car-tab fees, since the legislature gave them the authority.

Opponents say they should start over and come back with a better package next year. Supporters say there's no guarantee that there will be support for a new process or that voters will like that any better.

An especially nice pie-chart showing how the funds would be spent appeared with an overview in the Seattle Times.

And the West Seattle Blog posted this video of a debate on Proposition 1:

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.