Our region’s need for transportation infrastructure and transit service is far from satisfied. Even in Seattle, Prop 1 and Move Seattle notwithstanding, riders continue to struggle with overcrowded buses, scant late-night service, and crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks. Now the global economy appears to be sliding toward a revenue-shrinking recession. So, when our state legislature considers a progressive funding option for transportation, we should sit up and take notice.
On Thursday, February 18, the House Transportation Committee will hold a public hearing on HB 2186, which would grant local authority for a Non-Residential Parking Tax (NRPT).
Currently, Washington State allows cities, counties and districts to levy a Commercial Parking Tax (CPT) under RCW 82.80.030. Several jurisdictions make use of this authority; for example, the City of Seattle levies a CPT of 12.5%, which is added to the fee drivers pay to park in commercial parking lots.
However, the CPT neglects a huge amount of non-residential parking space, because it does not apply to lots at malls and big box stores that provide free parking for customers. This is where the NRPT comes in. Private entities that own off-street parking would pay a tax based on square-footage or number of stalls, with a credit for the CPT to prevent double-taxation on commercial lots.
A number of U.S. cities tax paid parking, but a broader NRPT has not been implemented anywhere in the United States that I’m aware of. However, it is used in Canada and Australia (where it’s called a Parking Levy), and it was recommended for Seattle in a 2010 report by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
There are plenty of good policy reasons to enact a Non-Residential Parking Tax in Seattle. It would encourage better land use, disincentivizing excess asphalt and reducing stormwater runoff. It’s a fair tax, effectively closing a loophole that free lots slip through by not having a customer transaction that falls easily into the excise tax rubric. In principle, lot-owners could decide to pass the cost on by charging for parking, but in practice this is unlikely. The infrastructure necessary to collect and enforce parking fees, and the deterrent to customers, would likely be prohibitive. More likely the cost would be passed on in higher rents for (mainly large) businesses and absorbed by commerical property-owners. That makes it inherently progressive.
Progressive taxes tend to be non-starters in Olympia, but the NRPT may be an interesting exception. It should not be universally despised by business and property interests. Sure, owners of free parking lots will object strenuously. But any entity that already pays Commercial Parking Tax should welcome it, since broadening the parking-tax base will relieve pressure to raise the CPT. And everyone, including (mainly small) businesses that rely on street parking, should appreciate the transportation improvements that new revenue would make possible. That’s about as close to a win-win tax as you’re likely to find.
So, does HB 2186 have a chance? Unfortunately it is probably too late to be voted on this year, but a hearing represents progress. If you’re free Thursday afternoon, please come down to register your support: 3:30 pm in House Hearing Room B in the John L. O’Brien Building.
Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union.