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April 16, 2014 at 6:25 AM

The problem with taxing bicyclists in Seattle

In approving a plan to stretch 474 miles of bike highways and byways through Seattle, the City Council puts a new challenge on itself. To fully build out the master plan, the city needs to find about $20 million a year for 20 years.

Bike commuter on Dexter Avenue North. (Seattle Times / Mark Harrison)

Bike commuters on Dexter Avenue North. (Seattle Times / Mark Harrison)

The most common solution — if it can be said that comment-thread trolls want to problem-solve — is to make bicyclists pay. Okay, what would that look like?

One option is mandatory bike or registration licensing, with some fee. Half of Seattle’s 634,000 residents have access to a working bike, according to a Seattle Department of Transportation bicycle survey. But with even a hint of analysis, the notion of a bike license falls apart. It has been tried elsewhere — Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and many cities in California — and failed, with one after another repealing the laws.

Administrative costs were too high, and there were clear problems with enforcement. In L.A. and D.C., the law was used to harass citizens. The Oregon city of Medford repealed its bike license law in 2010 at the request of local police, who said it was unenforceable for non-resident commuters. So how would it work here? Would Seattle cops sit on the Burke-Gilman Trail at the Kenmore border?

There’s also some sort of excise tax. Imposing a $25 fee on bicycle sales was proposed by state House Democrats last year in a transportation package. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the Portland Democrat and the strongest pro-bike voice in Congress, suggested a bike tire tax as a symbolic gesture in an interview with streetsblog.org. The Portland Bike Blog has reported on support for a symbolic bike tax among Portland’s bike advocates.

I’d be fine paying some sort of user fee, but there are practical problems with this. Taxes cost money to collect, so it would have to be significant enough to be worth it. And if it’s significant enough to raise real money, it puts Seattle bike-sellers and suppliers — many of them small and locally owned — at a competitive disadvantage to big box retailers and neighboring towns.

Teasing out the practicalities ignores, of course, the clear public value of encouraging cycling for congestion relief, to cut carbon emissions and for better health. Good bike infrastructure is increasingly an economic development incentive to lure jobs downtown. It’s not a coincidence that Amazon chose to fund dedicated “cycle tracks” as a public amenity for its future Denny Triangle campus.

So how would it work, making bikers pay? If you have a reasonable suggestion, email me at jmartin@seattletimes.com.

Comments | Topics: bike, city council, cycling

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