Bike tax seen as neccessary to address “political reality”

“We’re not going to put our blinders on and say ‘no, we refuse to talk about it’.”
–BTA lobbyist Karl Rohde

One of the many interesting conversations that we’ll follow in the upcoming legislative session is the concept of a bike tax.

We shared news of the tax last week and reported that the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) is discussing the idea with lawmakers in Salem and a committee formed by Metro is supportive of the concept. The idea is to charge an excise tax (in the realm of $5-20) at the point-of-sale on new bicycles.

Initial conversations have been modeled after a previous effort to pass a bike tax that came up in 2005. During that session, the BTA’s then-lobbyist and now executive director Scott Bricker worked with legislator Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) on the idea. Their effort had momentum and support from other lawmakers, but was eventually killed (once word got out) by big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, who sell the vast majority of new bikes in Oregon.

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In 2005, Starr and Bricker estimated the tax would bring in $2 million a year and would cost $500,000 to administer.

So far, response to the bike tax idea from the community has been mixed; but a majority of commenters have not been supportive of it and many have expressed vehement opposition to the idea (even threatening to not renew their BTA membership if they continue to support it).

To learn more about why the BTA would support a bike tax, I talked with their head lobbyist who will be representing them in Salem this year — Karl Rohde.

Rohde emphasized that the idea is only in the “conversation stage” at this point and that, “there are a lot of unanswered questions” about it. But, in talking with Rohde and others, it’s clear to me that if the right kind of bike tax proposal is hammered out, the BTA would not hesitate to support it.

“We are willing to be constructive members of a committee that discusses a bike tax,” Rohde told me, “we’re not going to put our blinders on and say ‘no, we refuse to talk about it’. I think it’s naive that you just demand that we not even talk about it.”

Rohde feels that anyone who says they should reject the concept outright just “don’t understand the political reality” of Salem lobbying. “If you go in with a ‘no!’ attitude you get bulldozed…it’s just not constructive for all the other things we’re trying to accomplish.”

The point Rohde makes is that if the BTA doesn’t at least play ball with the bike tax discussion, other major players in Salem (the trucking lobby, the highway lobby, etc…) will make it much more difficult for them to pursue their other funding goals — like increasing the state’s mandatory bike spending fund (the Bicycle Bill) by .5% and going for $20 million for “non-motorized corridors”.

Besides the political points the BTA hopes to score, Rohde also reminded me that if $1.5 million could be raised for a designated pot that would fund Safe Routes to Schools (which is one of the ideas on the table), it would mean they could teach bike safety to an additional 50,000 children a year. (The BTA currently teaches 5,000 kids a year with a $150,000 budget).

I asked Rohde if supporting a bike tax is essentially giving up on the false argument that bikes don’t pay their way. “I don’t think it’s giving up,” he said, and then added, “it allows us to continue to have that conversation. He also said he’ll continue to make the argument that bikes do in fact pay their fair share.

Noted bike lawyer and member of the BTA’s Legislative Committee Ray Thomas also shared his support for a bike tax in a comment on a story last week about a bike excise tax in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Thomas wrote that he feels the bike tax would give advocates respect (emphasis mine):

“What keeps us from sitting as full participants at the transportation table? Size? Numbers? Yes. But the two main criticisms I hear are that bicyclists don’t pay road taxes and fail to stop at stop signs. If we could remove these two gripes from the public mind it would push us closer to a real seat at the table.

We can argue all we want but until we pay tax dollars as bicyclists for roads we just can’t provide an argument that satisfies most complainers and a bike tax would shut the whole subject down.”

Thomas also wrote that he feels the League of American Bicyclists (a national bike advocacy group) should take on the bike tax as a priority. Until we pay a tax, Thomas wrote, “we are under served by the system and viewed as a sort of transportation novelty by many motorists.”

Early this morning, BTA leader Scott Bricker published a story on their blog about the issue.

Bricker wrote that the BTA will be, “at the forefront of the fight to ensure that any measure that raises transportation fees or directly taxes cycling are cost-effective, fair and efficient.”

In the end, Rohde says this is about having the community be “willing to accept a nominal charge” in order to “engender enough goodwill that it results in a whole host of other successes.” He likened their support of the bike tax idea as being “willing to put a little more skin in the game” in order to accomplish their goals.

Is taxing bikes a devil’s bargain? Or is this a move that will finally turn the tables and open up new possibilities for advocates? Either way, it will be interesting to see how this (and other legislative ideas) play out in the coming months.

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