Ford Pinto (wikimedia)

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.”

28 Replies to “Progressive Taxes and the VLF”

  1. Yes Martin, let’s screw the working poor. Forget the impacts of the recession and the (and the savage effect it’s had on government programs), this is a progressive tax in disguise!

    With friends like you…

    1. Inadequate transit service and streets that aren’t safe to walk or bike on, that’s what screws the working poor.

    2. I see lots of hand waving but no facts. It’s hardly “screwing” someone over when you are taxing everyone who owns a car to directly benefit people that disproportionally don’t own a car and disproportionally benefit from the tax.

    3. You’re ignoring the facts. Thousands of dollars saved if a person can stop driving. Hundreds of dollars saved if a person can substitute one or two regular trips with transit.

      1. Thousands of dollars can be saved if we convince the poor to leave the city.

        Operation GTFO!

      2. “Thousands of dollars can be saved if we convince the poor to leave the city.”

        Not really. There are a lot of working poor living in the ‘burbs and beyond because that is where the housing supply is, thanks to the perverse incentive of how much easier it is to clear forest and build there than it is to build up in Seattle.

        Many of them drive (and as we’ve seen, how likely it is for a poor person to own a car is partially a function of whether they leave in or outside of Seattle), and clog Seattle streets while getting to their jobs. That’s not cheap for us lucky Seattle residents.

        Say hi to your grocery checker when you get a chance. Tell her/him “GTFO!” and see how many people stare at you.

      3. I don’t need to, I have already priced them out of the neighborhood they work by bidding up the cost of the shitty 1200 sq. ft. bungalow down the street.

        Luckily the Microsoft connector picks me up for the 12 mile commute so I can devote my time to authoring New Urbanism blog posts

      4. Um, guys? If they can’t afford to live in Seattle, then they won’t be paying for this VLF. This is a Seattle TBD fee.

  2. During the time the late Monorail tabs were in force, my family willingly paid the added fees on an automobile in the $45,000 range. I personally did not completely oppose the idea, and regularly attended meetings in the project’s final days to see if it was possible to develop a sane course of action that could have resulted in some transit.

    Whatever merit there was in the concept, the manner in which the project was conducted was an embarrassment to everyone connected with it. My one remaining hope connected with it is that the money spent bought some actual engineering work that can still be used for transit on the west-side corridor.

    With that experience in mind, you can believe me when I say, repeatedly, that I consider good public transportation the best guarantee of a long working life for a car I treasure. But before I vote for the VLF this time, I want to see some enforceable specifics as to how the money will be spent.

    And more difficult yet, I want to see some assurance that this particular city government, Mayor and council both, are capable of delivering.

    Give me some help.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Didn’t you have specifics of how the money was to be spent last time? I don’t think making these specifics “enforceable” would have made the monorail succeed, or saved you any money.

      Your second requirement is even more vague. First step for them to deliver would be… passing the VLF.

      I’ve heard these arguments before, and they seem to be hiding a real discussion of merits behind the fear of we can’t trust the government.

      I’d much prefer we allow professionals some freedom to do their jobs, rather than requiring a 100% design of every painted bike lane before we shell out a single penny.

      1. Fair to say neither of us are making our most effective arguments, Matt.

        Monorail’s problems indeed weren’t lack of specifics. Rather, they resulted from a project whose extremely technical specifics were dictated blindly and angrily by a cult who believed that the laws of mechanical, structural, and soils engineering were subject to voter repeal.

        But speaking as a voter who watched a project I initially supported, and helped pay for, go off its single rail right in front of me I can be excused for needing some extra questions answered before I commit myself again.

        Also, speaking as someone who expects to speak face to face with other voters with the same memories once I am convinced, I need ammunition that’s as dry and sharp as I can get.

        And it’s hardly pathological “distrust in government” to notice the difficulty this particular mayor, for whom I also voted, has from day one had working with the city council. Roads- and streetcar rails and bike lanes- paved only with good intentions have a single destination.

        Your best argument would be to direct me to the most specific information available on what the extra $60 will go for. My communication asked for help- meaning I’m leaning positive.


      2. I believe there aren’t rigid requirements of where/how the money will be spent. I consider that a feature, not a bug, but many that are against the measure are using the argument that the money could be spent on anything in-scope, including the item that particular voter is against (they might spend it all on bike lanes!). That’s where I thought you were coming from, and I apologize if I was misinterpreted your comment.

        I personally don’t know many of the specifics of the proposition – I generally wait until just before an election to spend too much effort on these things (mostly because that’s when the blogs start really digging into the details). I assume STB will post more details for us?

        Yes, the mayor and council are gridlocked. Hopefully that mess is more or less independant of the more mundane details of government. I assume other projects are rolling along fine (Bridging the Gap, for instance).

        It seems like gridlock is the way politics works these days. Find a solution to that problem, and you’d be a hero.

    2. I paid those nasty monorail taxes — more than $1,000 extra one year — and never got any of it back when the project was cancelled. I have never forgotten that.

      1. Thanks for reminding us how comparatively tiny this VLF proposal is. It is kinda a shame that the monorail money that was left over once the monorail project got shuttered was all spent on extra service hours for buses in just a couple parts of town, instead of being invested in transit corridor improvements or completing the sidewalk network.

        Thankfully, this proposal does not repeat those mistakes.

      2. Does “a couple parts of town” mean Ballard and West Seattle? (1) What improvements did they get?, and (2) why shouldn’t they get bus hours if the monorail is cancelled? They’re the furthest from Link or any other kind of rapid transit, which was the reason the first monorail line was located there in the first place, so why shouldn’t they get the monorail’s bus hours?

      3. The money was collected for the monorail. It should have been refunded. But that’s never, ever something a grasping politician will do. And they wonder why people, given the chance, often vote against higher taxes?

      4. Mike,

        My qualm with the way the monorail money was spent (besides the obvious one that the monorail didn’t get built) isn’t what part of town it was spent in. It’s that once the bus service hour money is spent, there is nothing left to show for it. If some of that money had been invested in transit capital projects, such as transit lanes, signalization, off-board payment infrastructure, or bus bulbs, then the money wouldn’t appear to all have been wasted.

  3. For those who don’t like the VLF, let me know what other “more progressive” revenue streams you have lobbied for, and how successful you were.

    1. I don’t support any tax for this purpose. For one thing, there’s no assurance of how it will be spent. Secondly, if the CTAC (an advisory group with no power to do anything but make recommendations) report were to be the guide, it’s a joke to raise more than $200 million and then spend only 18% of it to fix the streets.

      Nope, not swallowing that one.

      1. Really, Jake. Your problem isn’t with the lack of assurance of how the money will be spent. It’s your confidence that a lot of it will be spent on pedestrian, bike, and transit infrastructure, which you just don’t support.

      2. Actually, it’s both. If they follow the advisory group’s advice, I don’t support it because they’re taxing the motorists they utterly hate and returning less than one-fifth of the money to the most urgent need, which is fixing the streets.

        If they don’t follow the advisory group’s advice, then it’s just one more city slush fund. Either way, it’s a loser, which is why it will be defeated by a landslide. That, plus the impending victory of Eyeman’s initiative, will truly shut your crowd down. Laughing at the whining will be a side benefit.

    2. I lobbied for $20 VLF because it prevents cuts to vital services already in place (Metro transit).

  4. Mercedes drivers should like this tax.

    It will make it more expensive for Pinto drivers to be on the road, and thus clear the way for them to glide back and forth from the office to the bluffs.

    While they are there in air conditioned comfort, listening to Pandora on quintaphonic sound, you’ll be looking out the window, trying not to smell the drunk to your left.

  5. Biking and transit presupposes steady employment and a desk job. What kind of general contractor shows up to the jobsite without a truck? Would you re-hire a handyman that wanted to use your tools to fix the toilet? These are the kinds of people hurt by this ineffective taxing “tool.” Standing shoulder-to-shoulder are those whose cars were booted, and others who must pay premium parking fees for the privilege of servicing Downtown offices. Where people bike and bus to desk jobs. Unjust.

  6. As a resident of Seattle, Mr. Duke, let me spin it to you another way. Who cares whether the latest car tab fee is progressive, regressive or just a plain ole kick in the butt? This $60 car tab fee is on top of the $40 car tab fee increase approved by the Seattle and King County councils earlier this year. That’s on top of the latest increases in the property tax. And that’s on top of the latest increase in the water rates approved last January even as another rate increase is understudy as I type this post. And lets not forget the increases in parking rates throughout the city. I don’t care where the money is needed or for what purpose. Enough is enough. Get it Mr. Duke?!

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