Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

“Symbolic” bike tax proposed in Washington should sound familiar

Posted by on February 20th, 2013 at 4:42 pm

North Portland Bikeworks new location-11-10

Don’t forget to add tax.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Seattle Times reported today on a $10 billion transportation funding package introduced by state lawmakers. The package includes a provision that would levy $25 tax on the sale of all bicycles over $500. The tax would be one of six revenue streams and would be expected to raise a mere $1 million per year.

Interestingly, a bike sales tax is not a foreign concept here in Oregon. In fact, it has been supported in the past by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Metro, PBOT Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller, and even Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

According to the Times, the Washington bike tax was included in the proposal merely as a “symbolic” gesture. Since the funding proposal includes a gas tax increase and a motor vehicle excise tax (0.7%), we assume the bike tax is included to show the public that everyone will pay.

The Cascade Bicycle Club, the state’s largest bike advocacy group, doesn’t like the package. They are mostly against its highway-heavy project list; but they also — not surprisingly — oppose the bike tax. Here’s an excerpt from their blog post about it today:

“The package’s proposed bike excise tax ($25 on sales of bikes costing more than $500) would harm hard-working small business owners. Most such bikes are sold by small family-owned bike shops and this would impose red tape and costs for them while creating virtually no revenue.

People who bicycle already pay substantial taxes for our transportation system, including the sales taxes, property taxes and federal taxes that together cover two-thirds of all transportation spending in Washington. Bicyclists who own cars also pay the same car tabs as everyone else even if they drive less.”

In 2008, as part of a transportation visioning committee hosted by then Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. One of the ideas that came out of that committee was a, “point-of-sale excise tax on the purchase of adult bicycles should be used to enhance bicycle transportation, including Safe Routes to Schools.” The idea was supported by the BTA; but it never went anywhere.

Then a bike excise tax idea reared its head in Portland again in 2010. PBOT Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller told The Oregonian that he supported an excise tax because, “There’s a symbolic value to cyclists paying.”

Even Congressman Earl Blumenauer has spoken in favor of a bike sales tax.

When we put the question of a bike tax to readers in 2010, nearly 200 of you responded. The majority were opposed to the idea.

With the transportation revenue debate raging, and with Washington’s bike tax on the table, I won’t be surprised if we hear about one proposed in Oregon sometime soon.

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  • Anne Hawley February 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    If I thought a bike tax would actually shut the “pay your fair share”s up, I’d be in favor of it. But we’d vote for it, pay it, and STILL have the same people complaining that it’s not enough. What other group gets levied “symbolic taxes” as a sop to majority whining?

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    • John Lascurettes February 20, 2013 at 11:24 pm


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    • Mike February 21, 2013 at 11:53 am


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      • K'Tesh February 21, 2013 at 5:14 pm


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    • Mike February 21, 2013 at 11:59 am

      Bah – get rid of the $25 “tax” and in place add a 5% sales tax on all goods. Then everyone gets to pay their share and it is still cheaper than buying in Wa. The $500 dollar bike still gets hit with $25 and the $5000 bike is equally hit at $250.

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      • Pete February 25, 2013 at 8:51 pm

        Something that sensible business leaders have been suggesting for years. I grew up in Boston and Mass had a 5% sales tax on non-necessities but kept foods and basic groceries (toilet paper, etc.) tax-free so as to not burden those below median income level. I suspect it worked well in practice as they kept the same sales tax rules for decades, along with a relatively well-balanced budget. Here on the opposite side of the spectrum (and country) we in Santa Clara County, California are about to endure our second sales tax increase this year – nearly double that – and we still have government financial woes.

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  • Rol February 20, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I got a symbol for ya… but it’s NSFW

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  • John Henry Burns February 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    I would support a bicycle sales tax, even if it is partly symbolic. Budgets are tight at the state and local levels, and more revenue sources need to be on the table. I’m willing to back my desire for increased investment in bicycling infrastructure with my own dollars.

    Ideally I’d like to use a bike sales tax as negotiating tactic to realize other items on the wish-list… a compromise proposal that implements both a $25 bicycle sales tax and also an Idaho Stop law, for instance. Perhaps something like this could get enough bipartisan support in the legislature…

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  • Burk February 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Bike sales tax = Idaho Stop

    Sign me up!

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  • TonyH February 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    I’ve said it before: Tire tax. Every tire sold has a tax, based upon size. Strollers, bicycles, wheelchairs, trucks … all tires. This revenue is then used ONLY for road related stuff. This will eliminate the “you bicyclists don’t pay your fair share” sort of thing.

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    • oliver February 21, 2013 at 9:10 am

      “based upon size…”

      And including a ‘bonus’ multiplier for the number of metal ‘traction enhancment’ bits sticking out of the tire.

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    • pqbuffington February 21, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      You might have something there…but how about a vehicle weight tax?

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    • Eathan M April 3, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      The tire tax concept is nice, but the simple truth is we do pay our share. Federal tax dollars help build the interstate highway system, which bicycles aren’t allowed on and tons of general fund dollars go every year to road repair, resurfacing, repainting, etc, etc, etc. Cars, trucks, buses, etc eat up those roads, consume those resources the fastest, but vehicle registration and gas taxes pay for only a part of maintaining our roads and bridges, so if you walk, bike, skateboard, etc, your tax dollars are subsidizing your auto-centric neighbors.

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  • Hart Noecker February 20, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    And isn’t it about time we start tolling cyclists to pay for freeways, too?


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  • art fuldodger February 20, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Does the symbolic value of fighting climate change, improving neighborhood livability, making us less dependent on oil imports, and reducing health care costs count? Apparently not…interesting how symbols work that way.

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  • dwainedibbly February 20, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    It is better than some sort of annual registration, that’s for sure. It would be worthwhile to require that the money raised fund cycling infrastructure, but that might wervve as an excuse to pull other funding.

    Why a $500 lower limit? Because they don’t want to hurt the WalMart bike-buying public. It’s “symbolic”, all right: symbolic of what is essentially a class war.

    As long as Oregon doesn’t do the same thing, dealers here may get some increased business at the expense of bike shops in Vancouver.

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    • art fuldodger February 20, 2013 at 6:45 pm

      and with no sales tax, we really got ’em smoked.

      as Tom McCall might say, “buy your sh*t in Oregon but please don’t stay”

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  • niko February 20, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    Why not a shoe tax of $5 for each pair- symbolic for sidewalks, streetlights, crosswalks and wear and tear on public spaces.

    Bike registration for use on public roads by those over 16 would make more since. Oregon should be sales tax free and this bike tax kinda looks like a mandatory tax added to the sale price of a bicycle. I don’t like the slippery slope- let alone the fact that it aint gonna pay more much…

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    • K'Tesh February 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm

      I’d make sure that any shoe tax pay for improvements and maintenance required by the ADAAG (ensure that any storm drain grates in the walkway/crosswalk are ADA compliant, heaved/cracked concrete is ground down (or replaced), large gaps between concrete panels are filled, complete sidewalks, etc)

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    • Pete February 25, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Or a child tax for public schools?

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  • Ventura February 20, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    I live in Spokane, Washington. In addition to subsidizing drivers with existing sales taxes and property taxes, Spokane keeps renewing a “10-year street bond” on property taxes to rebuild our worst roads. Why should there be another tax to subsidize driving?

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  • Dante' February 20, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    As someone that owns a car but bikes a lot I would never agree to any monetary compensation to the state because I own and ride a bike. You already get me for income tax/property tax now you want to charge me for riding my bike, wow is all I can say.

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  • sd February 20, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Sure, if I also get a tax break for all of the miles that I travel on my bike instead of my car, that reduces wear on roads, CO2 emissions, etc.
    Is symbolic legislation code for enshrining irrational ideas?

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  • are February 20, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    not to split hairs or anything, but this is an excise, not a sales tax. that is, it is imposed per unit on the sale of specific items rather than across the board by price. probably imposed on the vendor rather than the purchaser, though inevitably passed through. as a policy matter, an excise is usually imposed on transactions you want to discourage, and the proceeds are earmarked to alleviating the social harm caused by the item sold. so its presence here is not so much “symbolic” as anomalous.

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  • LWC February 20, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    If the money we pay in sales tax, property tax, etc. (non-vehicle taxes which make up more than 2/3 of the state transportation budget!) can be guaranteed to go toward bicycle infrastructure, then I’m all for it. 3.5% of Seattle residents commute by bike regularly, but a far smaller percentage of state & city transportation spending in Seattle goes toward bicycle facilities.

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  • wsbob February 21, 2013 at 12:46 am

    “…The tax would be one of six revenue streams and would be expected to raise a mere $1 million per year. …” maus/bikeportland

    Seattle Times reported: “….There’s even a $25 sales fee on bicycles worth $500 or more that raises a total $1 million over 10 years, included for largely symbolic reasons. …” http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020393904_transpopackagexml.html

    The tax would only raise $100,000 a year. Seeing as how this is just a draft proposal the Washington legislature is looking at, I suppose legislators haven’t had a chance to think much yet about whether it’s important that such monies should be directed towards specifically named transportation projects supporting biking, or whether it’s fine to just deposit them into the huge transportation budget Washington has to deal with.

    Washington state is a place where many residents, or at least, their leaders…apparently have come to feel bike specific laws such as all ages mandatory bike helmet use laws are a good idea: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/bike/helmets.htm. The MHL hasn’t covered the state yet, but it looks like a lot of cities and counties in Washington state favor it, despite over-bearing, unnecessary, even counterproductive aspects of such laws that may have played a big role in other states not seeking such laws.

    Considering various things this outlook Washington state has about people that ride bikes may exactly mean, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise if the bike tax makes it through into the final budget approved.

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  • Evan February 21, 2013 at 5:31 am

    Taxes generally serve one of two purposes. The first of course is to raise revenue. The second is to artificially influence the market by providing disincentives for “undesirable” behavior such as smoking (which carries a massive public health cost). This proposed tax fails on both factors. It will not generate sufficient revenue to be of statewide benefit, and it disincenti

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  • Evan February 21, 2013 at 5:38 am

    It disincentivizes “good” behavior that actually saves money in the long run. People who ride bicycles not only save the DOT money by reducing or removing the need for extra road capacity, they also create fewer negative externalities on other road users and society in general.

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  • Dave February 21, 2013 at 7:23 am

    If it would cause Tim Eyman to immediately drop dead from the shock of seeing it pass, I’d happily vote for it.

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  • Danielliam February 21, 2013 at 7:57 am

    I bet Vancouver bike shops will love this. Yet another reason for Washingtonians to go south for a big purchase.Score another for online retailers and another hit on local bike shops.

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  • DK February 21, 2013 at 8:01 am

    $25 tax on all bikes over $500?

    Where’s the equity in that? Someone buys a $500.00 bike and they pay a 5% tax, but the person that has the money to buy the $5,000 bike pays only .5%.

    The burden seems to fall heaviest on those with the least means.

    For the record, I’d be for a bike tax if it were fairly implemented and the revenue were dedicated exclusively to bike-specific projects.

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    • Elliot February 21, 2013 at 8:43 am

      Thanks for making this point.

      Motor vehicles: 0.7% tax. Bikes: 5% tax. Yeah, that sounds equitable…

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  • Terry D February 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Great idea to have a symbolic bike charge somewhere to negate the “bicyclists don’t pay” charge…… but, a flat $25 fee on bike sales is a STUPID way to do it. What about all of those who build their own bikes? Do you charge if you just buy a frame? Why charge the same for a minimum wage worker needing a basic bike to get to work versus an executive who wants a $4000 racing bike for his weekend vacation.

    The best idea I have heard so far, in an easy line-item tax, is the tire tax based on wear and tear and the weight of the vehicle…..this could capture the studded tires issue and the subsidy to heavy SUV’s which due significantly more road damage than a light weight compact car.

    However, What we really need is an overall carbon taxing regime combined with a complete overhaul of our transportation laws. We could integrate updating the traffic laws for bicycles and combine this with a Carbon Tax specially geared towards how the transportation mode effects carbon emissions. This combined with a wheel-mile tax could stabilize our funding for the foreseeable future and include bikes in the mix at their true cost to society….and we all know what that is. 🙂

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  • gumby February 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Let’s see. I reduce congestion, polution and road wear. Shouldn’t people be paying ME?

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    • Art Fuldodger February 21, 2013 at 9:37 am

      No. You’re only symbolic, and not the one of choice, so you don’t count. (sarcasm)

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  • Zaphod February 21, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Those in support are pandering to ignorance. We already pay. Period. We’re a net gain for motorists as we’re not parking in garages, not damaging streets and improve the overall traffic situation. Why don’t we really stand up and shout that. I’ve grown weary of the absolute bs on this topic. And politicians too weak to articulate truth.

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    • Pete February 25, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      “And politicians too weak to articulate truth.”

      Cough… increase federal fuel taxes to pay for the growing FHWA Trust Fund deficit… ahem.

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  • Little Lebowsky February 21, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Policy from the “tax the people I don’t like” crowd.”

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  • gneiss February 21, 2013 at 9:42 am

    When you consider the subsidies that are going towards the purchase of electric cars ($7,500 tax credit at the federal level), this exise tax looks mindboggling regressive. If we are trying to encourage people to look at alternatives to purchasing petroleum-fueled automobiles, we should be providing tax credits for bicycle commuters rather than trying to exact fees from them.

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    • Pete February 25, 2013 at 9:04 pm

      There already are federal tax incentives for people who commute by bike… but they must be administered by willing employers.

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      • El Biciclero February 26, 2013 at 4:27 pm

        Right. Up to $20 per “qualifying” bicycle commute month, not to be used in combination with any other (e.g. transit) commuter tax benefit program. Meanwhile, non-cyclists qualify for up to $245/month for any combination of parking, vanpool, or transit expenses. Seems like they should at least allow combining bike benefits with a transit pass, but they don’t. Meanwhile, many buildings still won’t allow bikes inside, so you have to leave your bike in the parking garage (if you’re lucky–in a cage in the garage if you’re really lucky) or just out in the elements. I’d hardly call that an incentive to start bike commuting.

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  • sd February 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Why isn’t BTA advocating for tax incentives for cycling? The narrative is moving against cyclists because we are always defensive in public discourse, letting the editorial bord at the O’ set the agenda.

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  • El Biciclero February 21, 2013 at 11:33 am

    What does a “symbolic” tax accomplish? If it doesn’t raise enough revenue to do more than sweep existing bike lanes, why implement it? Might as well pass a resolution establishing “Bicyclist Money-Burning Day”. On this day, all bicycle owners shall present themselves to local authorities, pull out a $20-bill, and “symbolically” light it on fire.

    Would it be essentially “protection” money? “As long as you’re uh, y’know, using the roads for free, there’s uh, no telling what could possibly befall youse whilst you’re engaging in your uh, little pastime there…”

    Would it be a blanket, pre-paid fine for all the scofflaw behaviors “everybody knows” cyclists commit “all the time”? “Ha! consider that a token citation for all those stop signs you run! Scofflaws!”

    Would it “grant” cyclists a somehow more legitimate right to use the road than already exists?

    If I think not-too-hard about it, “symbolic” = “punitive”. It would appear that the General Public, including those who make laws, would like to see cyclists punished for their freeloading, scofflaw ways. It’s like charging vegetarians double for lentils while fatsos get a discount on double cheeseburgers, cuz, you know, eating lentils is a burden on the healthcare system. Just the other day, I had to wait while my doctor saw some health nut for a routine check-up! There wasn’t even anything wrong with him! Those vegetarians should stick to the Naturopaths! I sat there for 15 minutes while this lentil-eater held up the whole waiting room–and those seats are tiny, by the way!

    If you really want a “fair” tax, use a tire tax. Charge a fee/tax based on the weight of the tire. Or tax the estimated fossil-based extractions used in the manufacture of any vehicle or part (e.g., tires again)–at the same rate across the board. Tax carbon emissions from vehicles (oops, that would exempt bikes). Charge a one-time fee based on vehicle weight–again, at the same rate across the board. Tax something that is mode-independent, and do it at the same rate for all vehicles. Then we’d see what’s really “fair”. Any way you slice it, taxes/fees levied specifically against bicyclists/bicycles–that are on any kind of parity with what would be charged to a motor vehicle owner–are either “symbolic” and serve no purpose other than to punish bicycle buyers/owners/users, or if applied at the same rate to motor vehicles would cause motorist outrage. Anything non-symbolic charged only to bicycle owners would be grossly unfair when compared to what motorists pay for their vehicles.

    Oh, and while we’re discussing it, where is the bill to charge electric/hybrid vehicle owners a “symbolic” tax to make up for all the gas taxes they’re not paying?

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    • Terry D February 21, 2013 at 11:14 pm

      Washington state already charges $100 a year to hybrid drivers to make up for the lack of gas taxes.

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  • rwl1776 February 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Not surprisingly, it was a Democrat who floated this Tax Raising idea in Washington. They know a better way to spend your money than you do, so pay up, stop resisting, send them your Change. http://www.LP.org

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  • David Feldman February 22, 2013 at 8:41 am

    Rotten idea–who came up with this, Lars Larson? I’d applaud a vehicle weight tax–the same $ per pound of vehicle weight wether it’s a Singer, a Suzuki, or a Suburban. Sheesh, next thing you know someone will want us to wear yellow armbands with a little stick-bike on them.

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    • are February 23, 2013 at 3:57 pm


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  • Marvin D February 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Sounds par for the course. When what is really needed is a tax rebate like other green initiatives are enjoying (electric cars, hybrid cars, solar energy, etc) the dimwits in Olympia are proposing another tax. Symbolic it is not. Moronic it is.

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  • GlowBoy February 23, 2013 at 12:05 am

    Shouldn’t the state be PAYING people $25 to buy bikes?

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