Self-identified progressive, pro-transit voters looking for a reason to vote against a $60 Vehicle License Fee in Seattle will usually seize upon the fact that a fee isn’t as progressive as a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax or taxes that exist in other jurisdictions. And it’s certainly true that a working class family with two cars is paying a much larger share of their income than an upper-class family with two cars.
On the other hand, this picture is complicated by the fact that the poorest of the poor, who don’t have cars, will pay nothing at all. In fact, 1 in 6 Seattle households are carless, and 40% of those with incomes below 150% of the poverty line. If a more reliable bus or safer bicycle infrastructure allows someone to get rid of one car in a household, that’s a huge amount of money in their pockets.
Secondly, it’s not an accident that the City Council is using a VLF: it’s the revenue tool the legislature is giving them. If I understand the media, a no vote will be perceived not as “voters demand a more progressive tax” but instead as “even Seattle has had enough of increased taxes.” The broader implications of this conclusion are an exercise left to the reader.
Finally, it’s important to remember that these transportation improvements, and the transit improvements in particular, are deeply progressive in impact. It’s not the Mercedes driver that’s riding the bus, in general. Bicycling and walking, if you resist the urge to accessorize, are the cheapest transportation options out there. It’s easy to favor enhanced service when someone else (“the rich”) are paying for it. It’s quite another to think that improved public services are worth paying higher taxes. We have a word for people who don’t think so: they’re called “conservatives.”