WPC’s Misguided Transportation Principles

Photo by raggiesoft

We’ve written many a time on the misguided fluff coming from Michael Ennis, Washington Policy Center’s (WPC) Transportation Director, both for his abrasive attitude toward transit and unwavering support for automobile dominance.  Despite repeated rebuttals, however, it seems like WPC’s ideology continually creeps into its legislative advocacy regarding transportation, sometimes even in contrast to to the think-tank’s free-market platform.

The most recent example is Ennis’ analysis of the Voice of Washington survey results and subsequent recommendation principles for the upcoming Legislative session.

Lacking public support for a gas tax increase may spell trouble for policymakers who want a transportation package in 2012 during a presidential election year. Given the current economic climate and combined with the Governor’s new statewide sales tax proposal for general government (probably with a vote in April), a transportation tax package in November now seems less likely.

Ennis knows that any increase in the gas tax is tied down by a lot of political baggage so it’s pretty convenient for him to cherry-pick this one single finding to argue against any kind of transportation package.  What he ignores is the broad support for more other funding options (PDF) and user-based charges, like the vehicle emissions fee, electric vehicle license fee, and variable tolling.

It really depends on what comes out of the upcoming legislative session, but it’s premature to suggest that touching the gas tax is the only option up for consideration.  While a tax increase and/or elimination of the sales tax exemption has been a point of support on this blog, we’ve still been receptive to other viable options, highlighted in the work (PDF) done by the Connecting WA Task Force.  More below the jump.

As far WPC’s three recommendations for a transportation package go, the principles don’t depart significantly from traditional pro-highway talking points:

  • Taxes and fees paid by drivers should not be used to subsidize other modes.

The issue with applying this kind of tax policy to transportation is that it assumes modes are separate and mutually exclusive, when in fact they’re very much interrelated– buses use highway lanes to get around, drivers benefit from roadway capacity freed by trips taken on other modes, pedestrians benefit from sidewalks built into road projects, and so on.  In fact, many people, transit riders in particular, are multi-modal travelers that benefit from improvements to any and all modes.

  • State taxes should not fund local transit agencies.

The survey results indicate that many Washingtonians think otherwise, especially given the availability of State support to transit through the MVET once upon a time.  What’s interesting is that when it comes to roads, State taxes do go to fund local projects, which is especially true in the Puget Sound area.  It’s clear that Ennis isn’t really arguing about the scale of tax equity, but the mode, where there is a clear vendetta against transit.

  • Use current transportation revenues more effectively and stop diversion to non-highway purposes.

The only State revenue sources that are constitutionally protected against “diversion to non-highway purposes” are those that go into the motor vehicle fund (i.e., gas tax, vehicle registration fees).  Though bound by legislative action, other sources don’t fall under the same constitutional restrictions because of what WPC fails to recognize– that transportation modes are mutually interactive, whether highway or non-highway.

Ennis’ recommendations are more of a hit piece against transit than anything that suggests tax equity. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the State transportation system is made up of a lot more than roads, bridges, and cars, and is discretely tied in with local and regional networks where the importance of alternatives modes are more apparent.  It’s worth repeating that the principle definition of transportation is the mode-neutral movement and conveyance not of cars, but of people/goods.

If the Legislature can look beyond rhetoric being touted by groups like the WPC in the next session, then we have that much of a better chance of aggressively lobbying for a vested State interest in transit.

Comments

    • Mark Dublin says

      Too bad there’s no footage from the “War on Horses”- though the fantastic PBS documentary called “Horatio’s Drive” begins with clips showing some vehement public reaction from a majority who owned horses to a mode of transportation that really did let the moneyed elite violate decent people’s rights and safety.

      Also sad that no one in America spoke fluent “Equine”, to interview victims firsthand. Even now, descendants of survivors probably still can’t talk about whole generations of their forebears dispatched to glue factories.

      Greatest take of all is an alternative history sci-fi short story, I think by R.A. Lafferty called “Interurban Queen”- about an America where the average person traveled by 1920’s vintage electric interurbans across a land of unpolluted natural beauty.

      Unfortunately, evil entered the picture in the form of “Sly Clunkermakers”, villains in oil-stained dusters who built jalopies out of sheer spite and terrorized the peaceful countryside with roaring smoking mobile junk-piles. The worst of them, “Mad Man Gudge”, robbed the cheesemakers’ cooperative and was loose on a monumental crime spree of driving.

      Luckily, he was intercepted by a train-load of interurban-mounted citizens, who opened fine-wood and frosted glass cabinets aboard the cars, pulled down Winchesters carried especially for the purpose, and put an end to the menace.

      Mankind is naturally warlike. Long ago, the war on tree-swinging by arrogant intolerant “walkers” ended a way of life.

      Mark Dublin

  1. Matt the Engineer says

    “Taxes and fees paid by drivers should not be used to subsidize other modes.”

    (bangs head on desk) Following this logic, here are other statements that must be true:

    “Taxes and fees paid by iPod users should not be used to subsidize schools.”

    “Taxes and fees paid by home owners should not be used to subsidize roads.”

    “Taxes and fees paid by workers should not be used to subsidize the military.”

    Taxes and fees paid by *anyone* should be used to subsidize *whatever the fuck voters want to subsidize*. It’s our state. Our tax dollars. Our roads. Our buses. Our legislature. Our laws.

    Gas is the only *special* commodity that is exempt from sales tax other than food. The tax my lunch pays for your government services, but the tax on your tank of gas goes only to your roads. Gas is not special, and should not be sales tax free.

    • Charles says

      Back in Illinois, they charged sales tax on gas.(In addition to hefty tolls on highways) Why can’t we do that here?

    • Aleks says

      Thank you!

      I’m sick and tired of all this “X shouldn’t subsidize Y” and “Z pays for itself” business.

      Governments are redistributive. We take money from those who have it, and give it to people (and projects) that need it.

      If we, as a city/county/region/state, decide that it’s a priority to build walkable communities and sustainable transit networks, then we have the right to do so (subject to any applicable laws). If we decide that we want to levy a tax on gas or vehicle-miles traveled, we have the right to do so.

      And if you don’t like that, then go move to Somalia. Because that’s the foundational principle of any social democracy. We don’t live in an anarcho-capitalist society, as much as Norman and Mr. Ennis might like us to, and thank god for that.

    • Bernie says

      So you’d have no trouble raiding the State Parks parking pass fees that are keeping them open to fund transit instead? I find it disingenuous that some vocal transit activists complain that motorists don’t pay their share of costs for roads but if a tax is imposed on driving they’re the first ones to want a piece of the pie. Yes the transportation system is composed of many pieces but transit is already getting a free ride as far as use of the roads so even if all the money from a gas tax, tolls, MVET goes to highway purposes it’s still funding transit in a big way. Especially when it funds things like direct access HOV/transit ramps like at Kingsgate/Totem Lake. I do think there’s a strong argument to be made for charging sales tax on fuel. But then I think there’s a strong case for charging it on bottled water, soda pop, etc. and gasoline is more of a basic need for most people than any of those.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        “So you’d have no trouble raiding the State Parks parking pass fees that are keeping them open to fund transit instead?”

        None whatsoever. But I’d go further. I would remove the link between parking fees and park funds. If we value our parks and want them to be maintained, we should pay to make that happen – even if parking fees don’t generate enough revenue on their own. Government is not a McDonnalds franchise, and shouldn’t be run like one.

        “transit is already getting a free ride” Yes. And so are those lazy firefighters. It’s time they start paying for themselves.

        “But then I think there’s a strong case for charging it on bottled water” Straw man. I’m not against charging tax on bottled water. But if you think it will come close to the revenue of a sales tax on gasoline, you’re dreaming.

      • Aleks says

        The gasoline sales tax exemption costs $500 million annually in lost state revenue and $150 million in lost local revenue.

        In contrast, the gas tax exemption for transit, including ferries, costs $3 million for the state and $1 million locally (annually).

        And once again, I completely agree with Matt that this game of trying to make every individual government program “self-sufficient” is silly and pointless. We should decide what we want to fund, and then we should fund it. Trying to run government “like a business”, at least in this way, is actively harmful.

  2. Adam Bejan Parast says

    I do think that I think a 2012 statewide transportation package is less likely now that it was a few months ago. For a while everyone kind of assumed it would happen but I have heard more skepticism last of late.

  3. Rod N. says

    I think if you keep more bike trails/bike spending out of the equation, more spending in Seattle for Transit, voted on by Seattleites, is darn near a given. I honestly believe that Seattleites are more than a little perturbed that bicycle spending gets such an emphasis by the McGinn Administration. Good gosh, many of us 50-60 year olds were riding bicycles on public streets without a huge number of incidents, FOR YEARS. Many potential transit users cannot or will not ride a bike. Period.

    An essential thing that bothers me is the bicyclists whining about crossing streetcar/railroad tracks. Perpendicular, bikers. Perpendicular to the darn tracks. I imagine they whine just as loudly if the trail ends in Lake Washington. Wah, I got wet. LOL

    • Mark Dublin says

      It would be worth it to me as both a motorist and a transit rider to pay for bike trails where if I chose to rent a bicycle, I could enjoy my ride without having to worry about being killed or disabled. I think what’s aggravating about current right-of-way consisting of striped pavement is that much of it does not seem to work very well for anybody using that piece of road.

      Likewise, I’m in favor of transit building accommodation for bikes into both vehicles and stations. Might be worth a posting by someone knowledgeable as to how system is doing now, and what could be improved. Go on line and look up Stuttgart light rail- at least one of their lines puts flatbed trailers full of bike racks ahead of their LRV’s where the driver can monitor loading.

      I think a lot of the friction now is just people getting used to a new situation. Europe figured out biking along streetcar routes a long time ago, and we will too. A real test will be what happens when Mike McGinn is no longer mayor: will anybody stage a successful campaign to eliminate this administration’s “road diets?”

      I suspect that egregiously bad road treatments will be modified by officials themselves, in consultation with all road users, but that as bicycling gets more common, easier, and safer, majority will be just fine with the new source of travel, exercise, and enjoyment.

      Mark Dublin

    • Eric says

      Why are you so opposed to spending money on bike infrastructure? Biking is important mode of transportation. A simple proof of this is to look at travel times. Pick two random points in the city within 5 miles of each other and the odds are overwhelming that the door-to-door travel time by bicycle is considerably faster than that by transit. And bicycling also enjoys immunity to service cuts whenever sales tax revenue drops, plus 24/7 availability. Take away bicycle infrastructure and achieving this type of mobility requires spending huge amounts of money on a car, besides the health problem of not getting any exercise.

      While the biking infrastructure today is good enough for the hard-core, it is not good enough to get mainstream people to use it for regular trips, as the low mode-share numbers of bicycling today indicate. While some will willingly share a lane with heavy 35 mph car traffic, most people won’t.

      Even though there are some great bike routes out there, such as the Burke Gilman Trail, if bicycling is to be usable as a mode of serious transportation, not just a cruise-around-the-block, the bike network has to get to where people need to go, and do so in a way that makes people feel safe and doesn’t require time-consuming detours in order to feel safe. Because a bike takes up a fraction of the road space compared to a car, building a viable bicycle network is much cheaper in the long run then building enough car or transit capacity to accommodate every trip.

      Some of the biggest obstructions to biking in Seattle are man-made. For example, to get between the U-district and Wallingford, your options across I-5 include the Burke Gilman, 45th St., 50th St., and Ravenna Blvd. If going from, say, 15th Ave./45th St. to the Guild Theatre at 45th. St. and Meridian, you either have to ride on 45th St. the whole way (very heavy car traffic, no bike lane, not suitable for non-hard-core riders), 50th St. (no better than 45th), the Burke Gilman (safe, but a time-consuming detour, requires going down a hill and back up again), or Ravenna (an even longer detour than the Burke-Gilman). If we had either bike lanes on 45th of 50th, or an I-5 overpass on 47th St., the bike trip would be very easy. As it is, most people would say you either have to take a long detour or risk getting run over. So, they observe that the door-to-door travel time is a good 30 minutes on the #44 (including wait time) and simply drive instead.

      Put differently: as it stands today, when you drive, you feel like you are using the roads the way they are meant to be used. When you bike, you get the uncomfortable feeling of using the roads in a way they were not meant to be used.

      “Many potential transit users cannot or will not ride a bike.” Obviously, riding a bike is not for everyone. But a mode of transportation doesn’t have to be usable by every single person without exception in order to deserve funding. Lots of people can’t drive either, yet no one objects to driving infrastructure as deserving of funding. At the end of the day, we need options. The more alternative options we have to driving, the more economic activity we can have without being constrained by the car capacity of roads and the size of our parking lots. Transit is one such option, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Bicycling is important too and it is not reasonable to dismiss it by assuming that because most people don’t bike a lot with the current infrastructure that most people won’t bike period.

      There are numerous cities in the world that prove that if you build a biking infrastructure safe enough for grandmothers and children, people will use it, that goes everywhere people want to go, people will use it. We just have to have the will to get there here.

      • Bernie says

        Eric, you’re talking about a cultural change. I managed about 30% cycling mode share this year (not likely to ride much/any this month because of light, rain, ice, whimp factor). I’m fortunate to live only 7 fairly flat miles from work. It still takes twice as long via bike although if I were going the opposite direction I’d probably be time competitive. I play a game when bike commuting; do I see more bikes or UPS trucks. All but about 2-3 really nice days mid-summer UPS trucks win. I have seen a dramatic increase in cycling commuters in just the last two years. But it’s still so low compared to commute by auto to be below the noise level. I will say this. If we had a good neighborhood bike network we could eliminate half of our school bus expense. That would create the kind of cultural change that makes cycling a serious piece of the puzzle for the next generation.

      • Chris Stefan says

        Bernie,
        In my neighborhood you will see more bicyclists even on the nastiest winter days than UPS trucks. Then again Roosevelt is a major bike commuter corridor. Not quite on the level of Dexter but busy all the same.

        I too have noticed quite an uptick in the past couple years in the number of cyclists on the road at all times of the day and year.

    • Matt the Engineer says

      “Wah, I got wet. LOL” He didn’t get wet. He died. What sounds like whining to you is just as important to me as crosswalks and seatbelts. It doesn’t cost a lot to save some lives – whether at train tracks or dead-end bike paths at the lake.

      • Chris Stefan says

        Traffic and road engineers recognize they have a responsibility to design roads with safety in mind. The design of a road or intersection has much to do with the relative safety for all users. A design with poor sight lines or where it is easy for motorists to make a mistake and drive off the road or into other traffic will have more accidents than one following traffic safety standards. If the design can’t be fixed you can mitigate somewhat with signage, guardrails, warning reflectors and the like.

        The same principles apply to designing pedestrian or bicycle facilities. It really isn’t a good idea to put sudden blind corners in a bike trail or have it end suddenly in stairs or water without providing riders with at least some warning.

    • Chris Stefan says

      I’m willing to bet the percentage of Seattle transportation funds spent on bikes is far less than the percentage they represent as a mode share.

      As a bike rider it really chafes me that so many people get their panties in a wad over a very slight increase in spending on bike facilities over the relative pittance spent in the past.

      Oh and I know critics like to claim this is all McGinn pushing some “war on cars” but the fact is most projects in the past 2 years were already in the pipeline under Nickels.

  4. Doug Bostrom says

    Amazing how successful the “war on cars” ear worm has been, and how transport discussions reveal strangely misguided annoyance with handy scapegoats to blame for our personal failings.

    I suspect a lot of hostility to bikes is down to our lousy ability to do simple arithmetic. If I have to slow down briefly– say for 30 seconds– to safely coexist with a cyclist, I’m adding a few fractions of a minute– seconds, literally– to my trip time, nothing significant. Regardless, the little child in me will skip the simple math and move straight to impatient annoyance, forgetting completely that whether traveling by bike or car I’m moving far faster than I would be on foot and of course ignoring how or why these seconds should count for me.

    If I’m trying to maintain a schedule so broken that 4 or 5 seconds has become truly critical, it’s not a bicyclist that’s causing me problems. If I’m so impatient or otherwise disturbed by my life that those seconds are the difference between calm and rage, again it’s not the bicyclist who has an issue to correct.

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