Traffic is not-so-great right now. Take the annual return of rainy traffic, add in work due to the “Green Lake and Wallingford Paving & Multi-Modal Improvements” project, and then layer on I-976 passage and the future can look pretty bleak. The governmental reaction to I-976 so far has simply been to throw a legal tantrum, but there is an opportunity for Seattle government to pull up their big boy pants and practice good governance.
King County taxpayers subsidized transit by 6 billion dollars in 2018 while asking nothing of single-occupant car commuters. The passage of Tim Eyman’s I-976 knocked 381 million out of our transit funding. We need to cover that 6% revenue shortfall and create real incentives to carpool, telecommute, or live near work. We can accomplish all of that by raising Seattle’s commercial parking tax on single-occupant vehicles.
The first number to consider is $31. That’s a low estimate for how much taxpayers subsidized each transit commute in 2018. $31 is what you get when you take Metro and Sound Transit “operating expenses,” subtract revenues from ticket buyers, divide that by how many transit vehicle boardings happen per year on Metro and Sound Transit, then multiply by 4. The multiplier accounts for how many boardings are required to complete a typical transit commute back and forth to work. Transit agencies prefer to talk about “ridership” subsidies, but they equate “ridership” to “boardings” so that a round trip commuter that transfers is counted 4 or 6 times per day.
If we look not just at “operations costs” but also “capital costs,” then the taxpayer subsidy shoots up by an additional $92 to a total of $123 per commute. Some of that additional $92 is going towards system expansion like building out new light rail routes, but it also includes expenses like depreciation of assets, managing financing, online systems, and system management. Lowballing operations cost is a trick built into every transit budget, and it’s what has led to troubles with transit systems in Washington DC and New York as infrastructure wears out and there’s no money to replace it.
The next number to consider is 57 cents. That’s how much tax is assessed on a South Lake Union Amazon employee’s parking spot each day. Seattle has a 12.5% commercial parking tax that is assessed on the “fair market value” for a parking spot. For South Lake Union and much of Seattle, fair market value is $100 per month, with a cost per day of 57 cents based on usage 261 business days per year. The tax is so low that many companies just cover the cost to provide free parking to their employees as a perk for working there.
The final number to consider is $0. That’s how much we subsidize people for being near work so they can walk or bike to it, for telecommuting, or for carpooling. Carpooling is easier than ever now thanks to support from apps like Waze, and if we could get half the single-occupant commuters off our roads then traffic would disappear at zero taxpayer expense. Many people commute long distances to jobs in tech, banking, or teaching when similar jobs exist closer to home. Does it make sense to provide massive subsidies to transit users while neglecting people that make the best choices for our environment and public budget?
Raising the single occupant commercial parking tax in Seattle from 57 cents to $10 per day should cover the transit revenue lost from the passage of I-976. The passage of 976 is estimated to cost King County Metro about 65 million per year and Sound Transit about 316 million per year. Meanwhile, the current commercial parking tax generates 35 million per year, so raising it to $10 could generate as much as 614 million per year. Even when you factor in revenue reductions thanks to carpoolers not paying the tax and reductions we’d see in people driving alone to work, the revenue generated should more or less cover the revenue lost from the passage of I-976.
A $10 per day tax on driving alone into Seattle would immediately deter people from doing just that. When paired with a planned tax on Uber and Lyft, we will finally be providing a real incentive for all transportation alternatives. The funds raised would allow initiative 976 to go into effect while maintaining bus service and providing funds to build out rail to Ballard and West Seattle. It’s a shortcut to most of the benefits of congestion tolling without needing to go through the expense and complexity of building out a whole new tolling system. Win-win, right?