The economic and strategic potential of the German Autobahn was not lost on Dwight Eisenhower during World War II. When he became president, Eisenhower pushed forward America’s Interstate Highway System, knowing that good-quality roads would promote both economic growth and a way to move goods and people throughout the country. Today, we still benefit from the road projects initiated during Eisenhower’s tenure.
This is the historical backdrop for Edmonds’ own Proposition 1. Appearing on the upcoming November general election ballot, Proposition 1 is a measure to preserve and improve the condition of Edmonds’ roads. Members of the Transportation Benefit District (TBD) are asking you to agree to a higher annual car license fee to support these improvements. Your cost will go from $20 to $60 per year per vehicle.
The 411 on Propostion 1
Go back to early this decade when car license tabs included an excise tax that was used to fund road improvements, and car license costs ran as high as $600 or $700 per year. The Washington State Legislature kept increasing the tax in order to fund education and other non-road-related items. The state Department of Licensing based the value of your car for the first three years at full retail price, even though the car depreciated the minute you drove it off the lot.
The public finally said (and rightfully so), this is too much! They passed an initiative to eliminate the excise tax and reduce the car tabs to well under $100. The problem was that while consumers no longer had outrageous license fees, they also eliminated the funding for road improvements.
Edmonds and many other cities have tried to cope with the loss of funding by looking for grants, deferring road maintenance and delaying projects. In 2009, the City Council formed the TBD, which the state had authorized as a new type of organization to help improve transportation issues, be it roads, buses, trains whatever the community needed. TBDs were authorized by the state to impose car license fees of up to $100 per car, per year. Of this amount, up to $20 can be mandated by the TBD; any larger amount requires voter approval. This is why Proposition 1 is on the ballot now.
What will Proposition 1 do?
Edmonds imposed the first $20 licensing fee in 2009, and it raises about $500,000 annually for roadway funding. The city’s current estimate is that we need about $1.5 million per year to keep the roads in good condition. While it’s not immediately apparent, whenever we spend less than that $1.5 million, our road system gradually deteriorates. The proposition raises funds for this repair.
In addition to roadway maintenance, the TBD members (essentially members of the Edmonds City Council, but in a different role) have identified 37 specific, transportation-related projects that also need funding. All of these are included in Proposition 1, too.
If approved, each vehicle owner (of cars, trucks and motorcycles but not trailers) would incur a license fee increase of $40 (in addition to the $20 paid now), for a total of $60 per year, per vehicle. Why vehicle owners? Because improving roads is good for vehicles, and thus owners should share in the cost of the roads they (we) use.
How will the money be used?
Of this proposed new amount, half of the funds would go directly to maintaining and resurfacing roads, and half would be earmarked for the 37 related projects. The increased revenue will amount to $1 million per year for roads, or about two-thirds of the needed $1.5 million annual roadway maintenance cost. Public Works Director Phil Williams says that while it is not the whole amount, it would be a big improvement over where the city is today. (The TBD has identified about $13 million worth of roadway projects)
The projects, based upon the list, have a total cost of $61,956.680. Of those, $13 million are considered roadway maintenance and overlays, leaving $49 million for other projects. Based on the remaining half of the fee ($500,000 annually), it will take almost 100 years to pay for the projects. Somehow this doesn’t all add up.
What happens is that the city will actively try to secure grants from other places to make up the difference. The city can leverage its dollars and secure funding from state and federal programs. For example, the City of Edmonds has already received a commitment for grants of $674,000 to cover 100 percent of one of the projects. However, if you don’t have any of your own money and you don’t have a plan for the improvements you want to make, then the grants are very few and far between.
Pros and cons
Will Proposition 1 solve all of the city’s transportation issues? No. We still need outside funding. On the other hand, the income generated by Proposition 1 would put the city in a substantially better transportation position than it is at present.
Proposition 1 supporters say that if we’re successful at raising the lion’s share of $49 million over the next several years on a contribution of $500,000 per year, that is a pretty good return on everyone’s investment. And, they point out that this fee can only be spent on transportation-related projects, so citizens are insulated from the type of abuse the state Legislature once applied. While this is technically true, these funds also would relieve some of the burden on the city’s general fund, and that money could be spent on other issues.
The anti-Prop 1 group contends that it is a regressive tax, unfair to low-income families. Since we’d each pay $60 per car, whether we’re rich or poor, the economic impact is proportionately greater on an individual with a small income. Setting a tax based on the value of one’s car would tend to even out this burden, but that option is no longer allowed by law
Another issue that comes is that there is no end to the fee. It is said that it will go until such time as either 1. all of the projects are completed or 2. if the projects are funded by bonds, the bonds are paid off. This makes a certain amount of sense as long as there will never be an ability to add additional projects to the list. Otherwise the fee could go on forever.
In the early 1900s, Robert Moses, the man responsible for the road infrastructure in New York City, wrote the legislation for tolls on bridges. While most bridge tolls expire when the bridge is paid for, he craftily worded the legislation to say the tool would be collected until the bridge and or other projects had been paid for. Because of that wording, even though the tolls have paid for New York bridges many times over, they are still being collected. The pro-Proposition 1 committee was not 100 percent clear on whether projects can be added to the list.
What about issues of fairness?
Now as to whether this is the right way to fund these issues. One can make a good argument that since vehicle users benefit from transportation projects, they should be the ones to pay. However, 24 percent of the projects are for sidewalks and bicycle pathways. Should vehicle owners pay for those? Should people who use those amenities, but don’t have vehicles, contribute in some way? Also, whether you own a vehicle or not, you still benefit from the transportation infrastructure. It’s where the buses run, and where trucks deliver food and other goods to stores run.
You might wonder why road maintenance and bicycle paths can’t just be paid for out of the city’s general fund. In this economy, there are many claims on the general fund, and it in turn is disproportionately supported by property taxes; so any additional spending would come at the expense of homeowners, and that’s another “fairness” question.
Let’s ask Phil
There are other questions that can and should be answered about this proposition. You may have your own. At this Wednesday’s”Coffee with Harry,” Phil Williams, Edmonds’ Public Works Director, will come to add clarity and answer questions you might have. Please join us.
Transportation Infrastructure is an important part of our City. There is no perfect solution for how to fund it. Some ideas seem right because they charge the users, or at least some of them. However, these same ideas create a regressive fee on lower-income people.
I would be more enthusiastic if there was an “ending date” on the fee with voter re-approval needed after that date. I haven’t quite made up my mind on this issue. Come and discuss it this Wednesday and maybe we can help each other decide what is best.
Edmonds resident “Citizen Harry” Gatjens is providing regular reports to My Edmonds News on the workings of the Edmonds city government, including the 2010 Citizens Levy Committee and the Citizens Technology Advisory Committee.