One oft-cited reason for America’s crumbling road infrastructure is our politicians’ preference for shiny new highway expansion projects over unsexy-but-necessary repair and maintenance. There are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies when you fix a pothole, or so the thinking goes. This has led some opponents of highway expansion — myself included — to call for a “fix it first” approach to road spending – i.e. prioritize maintenance.
But there’s a reason why “fix it first” is such a hard sell: politicians aren’t stupid. They know the voters like shiny new baubles, and so they oblige (re-read Ben’s post on Prop 1’s failure for more on this).
Transit advocates could learn a thing or two.
Over the last several years, Metro has been working to prevent a catastrophic drop in service through a series of short-term budget patches. Currently, the hope is that the Legislature will allow King County the right to impose an MVET to prevent service cuts and provide a more sustainable revenue source. Through a series of emergency measures, Metro has been able to minimize the short-term impact of these cuts. However, I worry that the cumulative effect of this five-year drama is that citizens view Metro as a giant money pit in need of ongoing bailouts, when the truth is that it’s been robbed of a sustainable revenue stream and struggled to come up with an alternative.
In other words, the effort to save Metro has been framed as a fix-it-first affair: it’s all “eat your vegetables” and no sexy new spending. To get political support for a permanent funding solution, a different approach is needed. Where’s the steak? Where’s the sizzle?
For all the flaws in the execution, I’d submit that RapidRide was the right model, politically. A 0.1% dedicated sales tax to fund a shiny new service throughout the county. RapidRide was voter approved, and the money was put in a lockbox that guaranteed it would be spent on the RapidRide service.
Since it looks like the legislature has failed to act anyway, and talk of secret plans is filling the airwaves, let me suggest an alternative approach, inspired by RapidRide. Instead of asking for new taxing authority just to save existing service, the county should propose a new service. For lack of a better name, I’ll call it FrequentRide. The idea would be that a certain set of core routes would be upgraded to service every 10 or 15 minutes, seven days a week.
In terms of paying for such a service, we’d have several options. I think the last five years have taught us the limitations of a sales tax. An MVET is a nice alternative, and all else being equal I’d take it over a sales tax any day. A property tax, though, is better aligned with the goal of funding transit. Expensive cars can be found anywhere. Expensive land, however, is typically concentrated in the densest areas which benefit the most from transit investments. No doubt, there are challenges to a property tax (Bruce details some of them here), but conceptually, it’s the right way to fund transit.
My very quick back-of-the napkin math says a property tax of $0.25 per $1,000 of assessed value would generate $75M in annual revenue*, which would cost the median King County homeowner about $100 per year. By contrast, a 1% MVET could easily cost twice that for a family with two late-model cars.
As Martin recently wrote, making a separate Seattle transit agency is unlikely to be a panacea, but Seattle could get in on FrequentRide with a property levy of its own, focused on capital improvements like trolley wire, improved bus stops, and dedicated lanes.
By announcing Plan B, the County has indicated it’s ready to act if the state won’t. That’s encouraging, but they should go even further. The public is ready for leadership. As the saying goes, “be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
* I’m spitballing numbers here based on the King County Assessor’s website and various other sources – feel free to dive deeper in the comments. But again, I don’t care about the specific numbers as much as I care about reframing the argument.