Seattle Soundings

The roads to nowhere

Last week, Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen put forward a proposal for a new transportation taxing district.

The idea is to raise needed money for both routine maintenance and an extensive list of long-deferred projects: the city's portion of a new seawall and the downtown tunnel, the Mercer Mess, the now-closed South Park Bridge and so on.

Under a 2008 law, local cities can create such districts with separate authority to raise property and sales taxes, increase car tab fees and impose tolls on local roads. Several Seattle suburbs have already done so.
Sounds good, right? After all, who could be opposed to paying for transportation projects? They do need to get done, and someone needs to pay for them. Like it or not, one way or another, that someone is going to be taxpayers. But there's one minor problem: We're already supposed to be paying for all this.

Not bridging any gap
In 2006, Seattle voters approved the Bridging the Gap levy, to the tune of $544 million in new revenue. It was, at the time, the biggest measure ever passed in city history, and here's what the money was supposed to go for: a $361 property tax levy that funded road maintenance, as well as "bike lanes, sidewalks, road signs, traffic lights, buses, street trees, stairways [and] neighborhood traffic circles," as a 2006 Seattle Times story relates.

The remainder of the money - in higher parking and business taxes - was to go into bonds that would fund the big projects, like bridges, the viaduct replacement and Mercer. Sound familiar? What happened?

What happened is that much of the 2006 money didn't go to transportation projects at all. It went, instead, into enhancing Paul Allen's property values in South Lake Union: the SLUT streetcar, a folly that serves virtually no riders but helps Allen's real estate appraisals; and the Mercer Street Beautification Project, the proper name for the series of "improvements" to the Mercer corridor that, if anything, will further impair the already-dreadful traffic flow of the neighborhood, but at least will give gridlocked drivers a more pleasant cityscape to memorize - most of it owned by Allen - while they're stuck in traffic.

The dirty, little secret of Seattle's transportation planning is that when there's a large pot of money involved, developers get priority and transportation planning becomes irrelevant, except as a public justification for the amenities.
Price also becomes no object. (Downtown tunnel, anyone? Waterfront bonanza!) The public money can always be raised from somewhere. After all, who's opposed to maintaining roads and bridges?

This is hardly a Seattle-only phenomenon. Lost in the brouhaha over Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" a few years back is that it was a real estate project, not a transportation one; the whole point was to create easy access to a nearby, all-but-uninhabited island so that developers could move in.
There's a long tradition of this sort of thing in local American politics. Seattle pols just happen to be very, very good at it.

One of the beauties of the 2006 ballot measure - if you're Allen or developer Martin Selig - was that there were virtually no controls over how the money (once approved by voters) would be spent. As then-mayor Greg Nickels explained at the time, this was because maintenance priorities shift when conditions of roads or bridges deteriorate. Or, as levy-campaign manager Andrew Glass Hastings reassured voters, "The city knows what needs to be done." Yep. It sure did. Which brings us to Rasmussen's proposal.

Different results?
The main advantage of using a separate taxing district to assess new or higher fees is that, in some cases, voters wouldn't need to be asked for approval. Up to $20 a year in car tab-fee increases could be passed by a simple majority of the City Council, as could a hike in commercial-parking taxes. Property- and sales-tax hikes, any car-tab hike of more than $20 or local tolling would still need to go before voters.

But, as in 2006, while there's lots of information on how money can be raised, there's very little that guarantees that the urgent list of needed projects everyone agrees upon is what the new district and its proposals would actually fund.
In the end, all this dancing around - like the dizzying array of agency acronyms that supposedly coordinate area transportation and public transit - is all about evading public accountability and limits. Some of this is due to the various Eyman-imposed barriers to our local ability to raise money for projects; the loss of funds from the cash-strapped federal and state budgets has hurt, too.

But demogoguery like the Eyman initiatives wouldn't find traction with voters in the first place if the money voters approved for specific purposes, as in 2006, was more often actually spent on those purposes.

Instead, with Bridging the Gap, much of the public's cash has been used to further enrich the city's wealthiest political patrons. And there's no evidence so far that creating a new taxing district for the very same transportation needs four years later would yield any different results in the future.

Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters" on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]