Focused vs. Diffuse

There’s already a lot of analysis of Prop 1’s failure, but I think most is occurring in specific frames – social justice, transit planning, the economy. I agree some people make decisions about how to vote based on very specific concerns and interests, but for the most part, I think ballot measures are much more simple, and visceral, than we admit.

For most voters, I think these votes come down to two fundamental, linked questions, which I’m hearing echoed in a lot of the comments here as well: “How much will I get, and how much will I pay?”

The answer to what a voter gets can range from the focused, like a streetcar extension along a particular street – to the diffuse, like a list of projects all over town, or no list at all! The answer to how much they pay is similar: As focused as $60 per car once a year, and as diffuse as .05% on every purchase.

During a campaign, the side promoting a measure has to communicate the benefit to as many people as possible. The more focused and simple that benefit is, the cheaper it is to communicate – the slogan can be catchier (“Mass Transit Now!”), the explanation simpler (“A monorail from Ballard to West Seattle”). An interaction that leaves a voter with confidence in your project is shorter, meaning you can make more contacts in the same amount of volunteer time. Even less engaged voters will be exposed to your message, because a simpler message is more easily repeated.

A more diffuse package raises negatives – which are much more powerful than positives. If a measure has roads and transit, people who hate roads will vote against it as well as people who hate transit. People who hate bike lanes voted against Prop 1, people who hate streetcars, and people who hate buses. The more complex your package, the more likely you are to trigger someone angry about another project.

At the same time, the opposition’s job is to communicate the cost. The more focused, like an annual fee, the better for them – $60 per car is easy to communicate, because it’s the same message for everyone, and it’s easy for people to understand – there’s no math involved. It’s more difficult, and costly, for an opposition campaign to communicate a sliding scale or make people angry about a tiny increase on many, many transactions, simply because it takes more words, time, and even math to tell each voter about it. This is why we have a sales tax! It takes work for a voter to understand how much it costs them.

Prop 1 was basically terrible in this respect. “A $60 annual fee for a wide range of small, difficult to explain projects.” Compare that to “a 0.5% sales tax for 50 miles of light rail,” and I think you get the idea.

We can debate all day what percentage of voters cares about what particular value set, but this is economics. Everyone cares about how much bang they get for their buck, and little projects for big money doesn’t sound good. I editorialized in August that this package needed a signature project to make selling it easier, and while a streetcar might not have been enough to pass Prop 1, I believe the results would have been different. As for the funding mechanism – we need to take that fight to Olympia.

Comments

  1. Shane Phillips says

    How difficult do you think it would be to set up a system that allows people to pay their registration fees in monthly increments? I think if we allowed people to opt into a system like this it’d take a lot of the bite out of a significant car tab increase that a driver has to pay all at once. I imagine that even without an increase a lot of people who live on low budgets would find this really appealing.

    I voted for the proposition, but I am looking forward to us putting together a better plan next year that is more focused in the projects it is hoping to complete and less regressive in its financial impacts.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      First, I want to say if you want a better plan next year, you are already fairly late in getting involved, and you’ll have to hop to it to get engaged with the people who want to do that. There’s lobbying happening in Olympia in January to help. You should email TCC and say “how can I help with Transportation for Washington in Olympia next year?”

      I don’t think a different payment system would matter. The issue here is that you *can* say “$60 a year,” and that doesn’t change even if you’re paying for it differently. The key is having something variable (which generally means progressive as well) or at least more difficult to calculate, so that one message can’t easily scare all the voters at once.

      • Shane Phillips says

        It certainly wouldn’t make a huge difference, but it seems like there’s not really much downside. For a lot of people it’d simply make existing fees more manageable, which is valuable whether we decide to increase those fees or not. There aren’t many things that people pay for only once a year these days.

        But you’re right about the important thing being that the funding mechanism be more progressive. In an ideal world I’d like to see it be a combination of vehicle value and vehicle miles traveled, but I suspect that the complexity of such a mechanism would be off-putting to many people, plus the issue many people seem to have with their miles being tracked.

        Excise fees are currently illegal (right?), so what are our options in that regard? Would it have to be repealed for even Seattle by itself to reinstitute such fees? And if that isn’t an option for us, what are our other progressive funding options?

      • Ben Schiendelman says

        I think it’s a good idea, but you have to ask this stuff: If it wouldn’t make a huge difference, who’s going to fight for it? How do you convince someone to pay for a change? Sure, an automatically deducted netflix-style payment would be great, but who’s the constituency who asks for it, and how much would it cost to administer that?

        I don’t honestly think the issue is how progressive/regressive a tax is. I think the issue is how easy the cost is to define. It just so happens that you get “progressive” for free with a lot of more difficult to calculate costs. :)

        In terms of what our progressive funding options are… that’s up to the legislature to figure out. Personally, I’d love an income tax. Sales tax on gas would be nice, too.

      • says

        I’m tired of the argument that a VLF is regressive. You don’t have to own a car. But if you decide to, it is reasonable that an annual fee is charged. The VLF is an externality fee to make up for the environmental, congestion and social costs that the car imposes on everyone else. 1986 Corrolas and 2010 BMWs impose generally the same externalities on society. If the fee is indexed at all, it should be based on something like CO2-emissions/mile, not dollar value. I am sure that that externality cost is a lot more than $60/year, or even $160/year.

        Locations that are serious about controlling congestion or environmental impacts, such as Singapore, China and Danmark, have found that registration fees or vehicle sales need to be in excess of $10,000.

        $60 is a pittance compared to the actual costs. But in a car-driving democracy, we can’t even get that.

  2. Matt the Engineer says

    This is a real problem with direct democracy. People aren’t stupid, but they just don’t have time to become experts on every issue. The result is that simple messages get through. This is a terrible way to make decisions, but we’re stuck with the political system we have.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      I honestly don’t think it’s a problem, really. I think that progressives just haven’t acclimated themselves to the reality of campaigning yet. We will.

      Simple messages work when electing representatives as well. The only difference is that you can’t do as much damage – or good – at once. Without direct democracy, we wouldn’t have ST2, remember…

      • Bruce Nourish says

        I would agree with Matt: overall, it is worse. Even if you can pass the big stuff on citywide or regional ballot, small projects like this are hard to get through, for the very reasons you describe; even though, the TMP improvements it would have paid for would have made many people’s lives better at relatively small cost.

        Oh well.

      • benleis says

        I’d argue that small projects should come out of general revenue. The corollary of which is that if general revenue is not covering total costs to maintain city government the city should seek to raise revenue rather than imposing lots of special fees. Its always seemed bizarre to me that we look for extraordinary funding sources for basic services.

        Ben

      • Matt the Engineer says

        The one benefit I see with direct democracy is that you can change a system faster. I think ST2 is a great example of that – it’s easier to pass big decisions off to voters, so that politicians don’t put their own necks on the line. That doesn’t necessarily bring forward better decisions, just less “safe” decisions. In a way, direct democracy adds a component of randomness into a rigid political process, which is actually a benefit*. I just hate that we’re limited to simple concepts. But again, that’s what we have to work with.

        * Government is a complex adaptive system, and I believe our current democracy is actually far too rigid. That said, there are other ways of making our government more adaptive than direct democracy. But good luck getting anything this complex past voters. (/irony)

      • Andrew Smith says

        Small, confusingg projects are why we have representative democracy. Direct democracy is for exactly what Ben describes.

      • Chris Stefan says

        Well the trick as I see it is getting the extra revenue in the first place. So take some big projects and shift them out of the general fund to the ballot measure (say some already planned bridge work) put the little stuff in the general if the measure passes otherwise put the big projects back.

        Also I agree there needs to be something sexy on the ped/transit side as well. I’m not sure what but it should be something people look at and want/support.

        One issue I see with pushing streetcars is they have become associated with SLUT in people’s minds which translates to “waste of money”, “slow”, “giveaway to big developers”. On the other hand surface rail transit polls well. Perhaps we should say “light-rail” when talking about the streetcar corridors? Or maybe some real funding for the 4th/5th Ave connector would do better than generic “studies”.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        “Perhaps we should say “light-rail” when talking about the streetcar corridors?” Or even better: start talking about urban light rail.

    • says

      YES. I just came over here to post this.

      For Prop 1 we had a lot of different, seemingly equally important needs, and just one way we could get money. This is the sort of thing legislators are supposed to be good at.

  3. Kevin Futhey says

    Great discussion, Ben. I think another element is the emotional response to the tax mechanism itself.

    Car tab fees feel more punitive, more coerced, than sales taxes. Because they’re paid all at once, you notice them. It’s a chunk of money you literally hand over to the government. You actually have to do extra *work* to pay it. And the psychology of a lot of car owners is that this is something they have no choice about because they “have to have their car.” It’s not a good feeling.

    Sales taxes, on the other hand, have the unique ability to fly under the emotional radar. Once you’ve decided to buy something, you expend no extra effort to pay sales tax. They run your card, and voila!, it’s done. It’s easy to pretend it never even happened.

    Lesson: Seattleites will totally vote to tax themselves, but, as is our reigning cultural norm, they’d prefer to do it passively.

    • Shane Phillips says

      I agree. As much as it would have been even more regressive, I feel like a sales tax funding mechanism would have had a much better chance of passing, or at least done better than 40-60.

  4. Gary says

    We also need a “bicycle infrastructure tax.” Yes registration is not the way to go. Licensing is just a headache, but some form of revenue that says, “this goes to pay for bicycle related improvements” and doesn’t come directly from car ownership.

    Auto drivers don’t mind paying for road repairs, and well maintained roads are good for bicycle riders. But they do mind paying for things they can’t use directly.

    And there are a host of trails and road improvements that bicycles would benefit directly from if there was a steady stream of cash to do them. ie signage, extending the trails network.

    I’m suggesting a $0.01% sales tax on anything to do with bicycling. Tires, tubes, bicycles, bike clothing, helmets, lights etc. It won’t grab the internet sales but it could go a long way toward “fairness” and revenue.

    • Shane Phillips says

      When you get right down to it though, auto drivers really do mind paying for road repairs. If they didn’t mind, we wouldn’t fund our road construction and maintenance primarily through sales and property taxes.

  5. Zach Shaner says

    One of the reasons I hate any and all campaigning is that you are forced to be disingenuous, forced to oversimplify, and forced to speak beyond the merits of your project. You’re basically having an immoral first date with voters…put on your sexy dress, lie through your teeth, and hope that at the end of the night they’re sufficiently charmed to say yes. All sides do this, all the time.

    Transit is a public utility, and while it shouldn’t be ugly, it by no means has to be sexy. It should be the dependable background upon which we build our lives. Sexy is for markets, and for the private sector. Governments exist to take money from people to do the things they know are mutually beneficial but have no incentive to do of their own accord. (Basically, classic Tragedy of the Commons incentives). Governments build sewers to clean up our shit, they house the infirm and the criminal, they build the structures upon which free commerce depends (electricity, telecommunications, transportation), etc etc…

    I hate having to prostitute ourselves and tart things up to try to pass things the government should have the power to do without resort to public vote. Representative democracy is great for this…give government a lot of power, and kick the bums out if abuses become egregious. But the worst thing you can do is tie the hands of a large government through excessive public process. Do that and you get an expensive bureaucracy without the benefit of efficiency and power to actually do things. Putting basics like sidewalks and bus bulbs to a public vote is ridiculous, but we’ve been given no choice.

  6. Rod N. says

    Love me or hate me, but 60 bucks a car for the 80,000 dollar Audi, or the 1,200 dollar Hyundai just does not cut it. And this was a TEN YEAR fee that does not leave much for ACTUAL transit improvements for a LONG time. NO added bus hours. But plenty for bike lanes. Relatively little for infrastructure maintenance. A “study” of street car expansion.

    Ben, I think you have sort of nailed it.

    I knew this thing was going to fail when I, “Mr. LUV Transit and Rail” voted against it. This was a first for this 60 year old relic.

    And when one of the posters, Brent, I believe, suggested I find an “anti-transit blog”, oh baby, my blood boiled. What an utter fool you are, Brent.

    Oh yeah, within one mile of Urban Village West Seattle: Genesee Hill and Beach Drive lose their bus service. Except for the 57 at peak. Heck of a deal.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      I want to point out that it’s really unfair to say it had no added bus hours.

      If I save eight hours of route 44 operation time in a day by building infrastructure, not only am I getting 8 more daily hours – I’m getting it forever.

      In fact, your comment is a *big* part of why we’re in such bad shape. It costs less to fix problems that are causing us to lose bus hours in congestion than it does to operate more buses!

      • Rod N. says

        Come on, Ben. Do you REALLY believe that? They will save a few minutes on SOME bus routes and then restore some previously REMOVED bus service? Ben, I think you are much more of a realist than that. And too sharp to believe that.

        I’m thinking “they” just as well will spend the “huge” savings on painting a few more bike lanes/sharrows on the beat up roads.

        But, truly, I enjoy this blog. I enjoy the analysis. I love transit and particularly love rail. Even though Brent thinks I shoud find a transit-hating blog. ROFL.

      • Aleks says

        Rod: You’re conflating so many separate things that it’s hard to keep track.

        First, can infrastructure investments save operating costs? Yes, they can. There’s nothing “idealistic” about that. Shorten a route’s run time by 10%, and you can provide the same service for 90% of the cost.

        Second, will Metro bring back any of the service that they’re currently proposing to cut? No, of course not. The services being cut are ones that are unproductive. But that’s not an argument against infrastructure; it’s an argument against productivity-based service planning (as opposed to coverage-based). I know how you feel about that one, and I don’t want to revisit it now.

        Third, if Metro is able to provide the same service for less money, what will the savings be spent on? Yes, it’s possible that the county will simply permanently reduce Metro’s budget, and use the savings for other expenses. But it’s just as possible that the county would reduce Metro’s budget anyway. No matter how you look at it, it’s better to spend less money. If Metro were to avoid capital improvements just so its operating budget doesn’t get cut, that’s pretty much the definition of wasteful spending.

        And finally, none of us are Brent. And anyway, he made his comment (which I admit was in poor taste) once, and you’ve been harping on it continually for the past week. Please let it go.

      • PhillipG says

        To make things more concrete, as an example, right now, the 44 is supposed to make its trip in 26-37 minutes, depending on time of day. Let’s be conservative and say the average scheduled trip is 35 minutes. During the week, the 44 is scheduled to make about 87 trips a day to Montlake, and 85 trips a day to Ballard. I’ll average the two and say 86 trips a day in each direction.

        The improvements for the corridor the 44 runs on (corridor 13 in TMP) were supposed to speed travel times by 3.3 minutes- about 10% faster. Over the day, in each direction, that would save 3.3 minutes/trip * 86 trips = 283.8 minutes-about 4.73 hours each way.

        Those minutes add up.

        I don’t know if Metro could, or was planning on reinvesting the saved time on additional runs, but if they did, we can estimate the upper limit of how much service they could add:

        Since each trip would then be scheduled to take about 31.7 minutes, if Metro wanted to keep the hours dedicated to the route constant after the change, they could theoretically add (283.8 minutes saved)/(31.7 minutes/trip) = 8.95 trips in each direction- about a 10% increase in frequency on a route that runs 86 times a day.

        Again, those minutes add up.

        I don’t know the details of Metro’s scheduling, finances, or operations, so I don’t know how close it’s possible to get to the theoretical limit of about 9 extra runs each day, each way, on that route. If maintenance scales more closely with miles driven than operating time, then the wear and tear would reduce that number. Metro might not need that many 44 runs, and might choose to allocate the buses to make other routes more frequent, or they might save the money, etc.

        In any case, those “few minutes” add up to a lot of minutes.

    • Rod N. says

      I have let it go. Thanks. I still love this blog and the well thought out commentary. Keep up the good work. The happy news is Eyman’s latest has lost. The trolley buses will continue to exist. Super!

  7. Brad says

    You are forgetting another thing, this was piling on. The city raised $20, the county raised another $20, and this added another $60!

    I commute on a scooter and have a car I use once a week or so. This would have cost me $200 a year, $2,000 over 10 years – for a scooter and an older rarely used car!

    Does the end justify the means? Does a “diffuse” Christmas package of benefits justify a regressive unfair tax? I voted no.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      You’d never be able to define the “piling on” so clearly if this was sales tax. You’re kind of proving my point – you can *easily* figure out how much it costs.

      • Mark Y. says

        If that’s the case then, why is it easy to raise the sales tax and so darn hard to raise the gas tax?

      • Aleks says

        I think you two are in violent agreement. When costs are easy to identify and benefits are hard, the measure isn’t going to pass. In contrast, a diffuse tax (sales tax) is easier to deal with.

    • Matthew 'Anc' Johnson says

      Honest question, why not sell the car and get ZipCar? Surely it be less than the cost of insurance/registration/storage/maintenance/etc.

      • Brad says

        I looked at Flexcar (before Zipcar bought them)

        The main use of my car is out of town trips on weekends. The problems were:

        1. Flexcar does not work well for that – it was hard to get large blocks of time without reserving well in advance.
        2. The economics didn’t work. My car is paid for, doesn’t have much depreciation cost, and is reliable. Biggest cost is insurance but even that is reduced with no collision and low mileage.

        I’ll reevaluate if I need to replace the car.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        This would actually be a good case for a rental car, rather than a zipcar. Expedia lists cars at under $13 a day for this weekend (ok, probably more like $25-$30 after all of the silly fees car rental companies add). Some companies even deliver to your home.

      • Charles says

        Because consumers contrary to what economists say are often not rational.

        In this case, they are responding to the perception that a car is complete freedom to move when ever and where ever you want without having to adhere to a schedule set by some faceless bureaucrat. Because of that freedom, they would rather hold onto a car despite the fact it is horrendously costly to insure, maintain and operate

        Ultimately, the trends of this changing economy may very well drive people into behaviors they would otherwise not choose. Like motor driven bikes, scooters, and car sharing schemes.

      • Charles says

        I should hasten to mention that economic pressure will of course drive people to public transit solutions.

  8. says

    I knew that Prop 1 was too diffuse when I realized that the only “name” of the measure that people would recognize is “$60 car tabs.” The proposal was most well known for its cost, because what it did was too hard to summarize.

    In hindsight, it would have been better to break it into chunks:
    – Prop 1 – Transit Master Plan projects – $30/year
    – Prop 2 – Ped & Bike Master Plan projects – $20/year
    – Prop 3 – Road & bridge maintenance – $30/year

    The “headline” for each Prop would be what it provides. Cost would be secondary. Let’s have a community discussion and an up-or-down vote on each of these categories.

  9. Eric says

    Try explaining to anyone who doesn’t regularly ride the bus what any of the transit improvements would have done and why it would be cost effective – the only way to truly understand how much time bus bulbs will actually save is to ride the bus and see for yourself.

    From the perspective of a driver who never rides the bus, you think “When I make a stop in my car to pick up or drop of passengers, of course I always pull over. Why should the bus be any different?”, not realizing that with stops every 1/4 mile, a 30 second delay at each stop is equivalent to an additional 10 minutes for a 5 mile trip, more when you consider that it leads to bunching and unpredictable wait times at bus stops.

    Given that the mode share for transit in Seattle for work trips is something on the order of 20%, this leaves 80% of the population who look at a proposal to make transit run faster and either go “what the heck is this” or conclude that it’s a horrible idea because their only experience with buses is getting stuck behind them in a car. To have the largest purpose of the proposal be poorly understood by 80% of the electorate feels like a recipe for failure.

    By contrast, while people who read this blog understand that buying additional service directly is less efficient in the long run, anybody, including those that never ride the bus, can understand that directly adding more routes and frequency by putting more buses on the road is an improvement to the bus system.

    • says

      Honestly, and bluntly, I’m depressed at how stupid people are and how much we have to dumb everything down for them. I’m tempted to say we don’t deserve democracy.

      The revolution of the next decade will be rooted in a newfound recognition of just how irrational people are, and how that can be a good thing if we quit pretending otherwise.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        This is an easy conclusion to draw, but I disagree. We don’t want to put questions to voters that require a large amount of effort to understand, and we wouldn’t want that even if every voter was a genius.

        A dozen legislators can each spend a month working on a detailed problem to come up with a reasonable solution. That costs society about 2,000 hours that could have been used elsewhere. But even expecting every voter to spend an hour thinking about a problem (and it’s possible for the larger issues they already spend more than this. how much of the average life did the tunnel debate eat up?), would take 450,000 hours (roughly the expected King County voter turnout this election) that could have been used elsewhere. And even after that you end up with lower odds of a good solution, since the average decision maker spent an hour on the problem rather than a month, and hence can’t understand it to the same level.

        We’re left with sound-bite voting because anything more is wasteful. Voting is better used for issues that people already have opinions on (our roads suck, do I want to pay for better ones?), not ones they have to learn about (constitutional ammendment 8205 and 8206, which I voted on but certainly don’t understand at an appropriate level).

  10. Morgan says

    Ben, nice job of stripping it all down to the simpliest qualities, which happens to be your point, too. I like that. I also think you’re totally right.

  11. Kk says

    As much as I hate regressive taxes… It appears to be the only way forward. .1% sales tax is easy for people to swallow. The ballot initiative in question failed partially because the tax is too easily quantifyable (as Ben points out) but also because people didnt understand it. You have to be able to answer the question: “what am I getting” with something concrete and answer the question “what will it cost me?”. With something difficult to calculate. I wish the 2nd part was not true, but idealism will not change it.

    I’m a big supporter or urban rail and tend to think it should be high speed/capacity and serve places where people already are first… I tend to think Seattle will need several ballot measures of its own to get anything approximating real mass transit. There are lessons to learn from this failure.

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