The budget approved by the City Council in Committee on November 12 and scheduled for formal adoption on Monday, November 22, funds transportation choices at their highest level ever in 2011.  It continues our commitment to implementation of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans, and does so without adopting the Mayor’s proposal to increase the Commercial Parking Tax by another 40% over its current level, an increase that the Council felt could cause difficulties for our business districts and was not necessary to sustain the Transportation department budget.

As a full-time bicycle and bus commuter, I have a strong personal interest in increasing Seattle’s investments in transportation choices.  And the policy reasons are compelling for supporting alternatives to the private automobile so that we can reduce energy use, pollution, and green house gas generation and promote safer and healthier communities.

As Chair of the Transportation Committee from 2002 to 2006, I organized Pedestrian Summer in 2003 (the City’s first campaign to promote pedestrian safety); sponsored the legislation that created the Strategic Transportation Plan and the Transit, Bicycle, and Pedestrian Master Plans; and worked to significantly increase funding for pedestrian and bicycle facilities.  This culminated in the first committed funding stream for ped/bike programs and road and bridge maintenance through the Bridging the Gap (BTG) transportation levy and associated transportation taxes. 

The entire Council enthusiastically supports transportation choices.  Mayor McGinn has announced a program called ‘Walk, Bike, Ride’, intended to further increase the City’s commitments.   This summer, the Council adopted the Mayor’s proposal to update the Transit Master Plan.  We also created a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee (CTAC) to put together a long-range financial plan for our transportation system, as well as a Transportation Benefit District (TBD).  The TBD is a legal mechanism that the State has given to cities that allowed the Council to implement a $20 Vehicle License Fee (VLF) to fund transportation improvements, and allows us to propose several other fees and taxes to the voters.  The $20 VLF will raise about $7 million per year, and we will likely propose a ballot measure for a larger VLF in the future.

With all of this work and commitment, and the strong advocacy of a new coalition called Streets for All Seattle, it would seem that we have a great opportunity to move forward together with increased ped/bike investments.  And the proposed 2011 budget continues the steady ramp up of these projects.

But there are questions about how to fund future investments.  The Council is committed to a systematic and comprehensive approach guided by the work of the citizens committee (CTAC) and funded by a balanced package of sources.  Unfortunately, the Mayor has chosen to generate an unnecessary conflict by including an increase in the Commercial Parking Tax (CPT) in his transportation budget and tying part of the increased CPT revenues to his Walk, Bike, Ride program.   

The current 10% CPT is part of the Bridging the Gap transportation program, and has generated more revenues than were originally predicted.  In fact, it has generated enough revenue that the Council was able to repeal the third BTG tax, the so-called “head tax”, a tax on the number of employees, and continue to fully fund the BTG projects from the CPT revenues.

Both of these taxes are flawed instruments.  The “head tax” was the third different business and occupation tax that the City imposed, and businesses found it to be complex to administer.  While very modest, it also gave the wrong message about encouraging new jobs by taxing them.

The CPT also has inherent flaws – it taxes paid parking, not parking spaces.  This means that it does not get at the provision of free parking by companies to employees, which is the very type of commute that we would most like to see discouraged.  It also does not affect free parking at shopping malls, which is also a type of auto use that we want to discourage.  And a new problem emerged this year, with concerns raised by the UW and other institutions that the CPT decreases the parking revenues that they use to subsidize transit programs such as UPass.

The City has very few taxes that can be raised without a public vote, but the CPT is one of those.  Because of the urgent need to keep moving on the Seawall, the Council voted last August to raise the CPT by an additional 2.5%, bringing the total to 12.5%.  The increase will take effect in January 2011 and will fund Seawall work for the next two years. However, a large majority of the Council sent a clear message to the Mayor that we were not willing to raise it further, for the reasons cited above.  The Mayor chose to ignore our message and proposed to raise the tax by another 5%, in order to raise $10 million in 2011, about 3% of the $300 million transportation budget.

Transportation is one of the few departments whose budget would increase under the Mayor’s proposal.  Human services were cut by 7.6%, libraries by 9.5%, and neighborhoods by 18.2%, and five community centers were reduced to limited hours.

The Council has identified cuts and resources that will add back about $3.6 million to the transportation department budget, largely into ped/bike programs.  We believe that the Mayor’s proposed transportation budget can sustain a 2% reduction without seriously affecting bike/ped programs or other important services to the public.

This has been a difficult budget year for the City – and a difficult year for employees, residents, and businesses.  The Council’s rejection of the Mayor’s 5% increase to the CPT does not change our commitment to funding bicycle and pedestrian improvements.  On the contrary, we will continue to fund necessary transportation investments – including transportation choices at their highest level ever – in 2011.  And next year we will work with the CTAC to develop a comprehensive, long-range transportation funding plan to guide sound investments for the public in future years.