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5 lessons for Portland in Seattle’s big bike-friendly ballot issue

Posted by on March 19th, 2015 at 9:23 am

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A few miles up the road, Portland’s big-sister city is doing something Portland hasn’t yet: charting a viable path to paying for its transportation goals.

The nine-year, $900 million “Move Seattle” property tax levy proposed Wednesday by Mayor Ed Murray would include (among many other things) 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 60 miles of neighborhood greenways over nine years. That’s about half of the projects that Seattle’s 20-year bike plan refers to as parts of the “citywide network.”

For comparison’s sake, Portland’s “paused” street fund proposal included, at one point, an estimated 14-20 miles of protected bike lanes and 40-50 miles of greenways over 10 years. But the possible lessons here for Portland aren’t just about scale (Seattle is bigger by most measures, after all) and the story here isn’t just that Seattle is succeeding where we aren’t (Seattle has a long way to go, after all).

As we all wait, somewhat confused, to see when Portland City Council will again decide to take up this problem (Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick says he plans to take it back up after the Legislature adjourns), here are some notes about Seattle’s proposal that Portlanders might find useful.

It’s going straight to voters. Despite calisthenic attempts to keep their street fund proposal off the ballot, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick couldn’t find a city council majority that could do so. By framing the issue from the get-go as a choice for voters, Murray is greatly simplifying his messaging around a public vote that probably would have been inevitable anyway.

It’s a big risk. This isn’t likely to be an easy sell. Murray is asking voters to more than double their expiring transportation property tax levy, from $130 a year to $275 a year for the median home.

The virtue of this is that it gives voters a chance to make a big decision with big payoff. Seattle Transportation Director Scott Kubly has been noting, correctly, that both of those cost figures are dwarfed by the thousands of dollars each year that the median Seattle resident has to spend on car transportation. Small investments in transit and biking benefit mostly the people who already use those modes. Big investments benefit everyone, because they actually reduce car use.

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Seattle is framing biking and transit as benefits to everyone. Politically speaking, there are two ways to see bicycle transportation improvements: as a tool for appeasing a tiny interest group of bike advocates, or as a tool for preventing a city from drowning in its own congestion. Murray’s administration is being very clear that it sees bikes as the second thing. From Wednesday’s coverage in The Stranger:

The future of this city is not in cars. As SDOT director Scott Kubly pointed out multiple times today, if all the people moving to our city—60,000 new people by 2025, according to the mayor—have to drive their cars everywhere, we’ll descend into an awful hellscape of traffic jams even worse than what we have now.

Portland politicians seem to have lost track of this narrative. Which is odd, since Portland is maybe the best evidence in the country that this works.

Scenes from the streets in Seattle-1.jpg

Portland active transportation staffer Linda Ginenthal on the streets of Seattle in 2008.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

It’s a boring old property tax. Why has 87.4 percent of Portland’s public conversation been about the street fund about how the money would be collected rather than all the neat stuff it would buy? Because Portland was trying to create a new sort of tax. By using an existing tax, Murray is starting the conversation with the benefits rather than the costs.

The main problem here is that Oregon’s property tax system, unlike Washington’s, is both conversation-killingly unfair and designed to pit ballot issues against each other before they even get in front of voters. Property taxes aren’t perfect, but they’re simple, broad-based and (under Washington’s constitution) relatively progressive. Novick has yet to float a Street Fund proposal that hits all three of those marks.

It’s a compromise. When it comes to transportation ballot issues, the conventional wisdom seems to be that unless local business advocacy groups are on board (and therefore, usually, the local newspaper’s editorial board), no one will be shouting “yes” loud enough to persuade voters to raise their taxes.

It’s not yet clear whether Murray got a sign-off from the Downtown Seattle Association or Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, though Cascade Policy Club Policy Manager Brock Howell said Wednesday that he didn’t expect either group to oppose it — adding that the plan falls well short of advocates’ stated goals for 250 miles of new bikeways by 2024. With Seattle City Council yet to act on Murray’s proposal, the compromises up north are sure to keep coming.

But if Seattle business and biking advocates end up teaming up to support this issue, it won’t be mostly because they’ve each secured an appropriate share of goodies. It’ll be mostly because business advocates in Seattle see bikes and transit as ways to increase the capacity of the road system. Until Portland can once again see transportation investments that way, compromises are likely to remain something biking advocates can only dream of.

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sorenPaul HAndrew K2 Lessons from EugeneMichael Andersen (News Editor) Recent comment authors
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Jeff M
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Jeff M

“And because it’s a property tax, every Seattle resident and business would pay for some of it.”

Huh?

Scott H
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Scott H

It seems like Seattle is already 10 years ahead of Portland as it is. They’ve got a great bike sharing network, they’ve started to bury another freeway. Seattle is already accomplishing the things that Portland only talks about.

Andyc of Linnton
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Andyc of Linnton

Yeah, but look at our talk! We’ve at least probably got the best talk about active transportation in the country. Platinum level lip-service.

Anne Hawley
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Anne Hawley

Perhaps not the Comment of the Week, but “Platinum Level Lip Service” would be great on a t-shirt.

Eli
Guest
Eli

We’re definitely on track to do amazing things in the next 5 years.

But no, in the present reality, Portland blows us out of the water in terms of a connected network of useful infrastructure for normal people. Don’t move here yet.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Seattle’s public transit however is still decades behind Portland’s and has been for a long time.

Al Dimond
Guest

This is… an interesting perspective on the Seattle situation. The Deep-Bore Tunnel is actually widely criticized by cycling and transit advocates because it’s ridiculously expensive, will force a lot of bus routes and private vehicle traffic onto downtown surface streets because it has no downtown exits, and will have big disruptive interchanges near the portals… and even the broader public has become disillusioned after all the boring-machine problems. The surface stuff over the tunnel has been Seattle’s recent trend of leaving non-car transportation design to landscape architects, in this case out-of-towners that have shown contempt for transportation cycling if anything.

Our bike-share system has seen underwhelming ridership so far, largely because downtown is still a hellish place to bike. All in all, supporters of the tunnel and of bike share are more defensive than proud right now.

MIke
Guest
MIke

How’s that “burying the freeway” going? Not well

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

You can’t compare the DBT to proposed plans for a cut-and-cover bury of the east bank freeway in Portland. The DBT is using the largest TBM ever made, cutting through some of the most inconsistent soil possible. If Seattle wanted a buried freeway, they should have chosen the cut-and-cover tunnel.

This is what they really should have done:
http://seattletransitblog.com/2015/02/18/westside-seattle-transit-tunnel/

Taken down the viaduct and replaced trips with transit.

Andrew K
Guest
Andrew K

Wooooh there… Up here we are decades behind portland. We have few bike lanes and are only now starting to do protected lanes. Our light-rail is finally starting to come online but won’t be near Portland’s scale until 2023 or so.

Plus by lacking a regional government body we have unhinged sprawl in the far north, south, and east causing major traffic problems and suburban voters to demand more highway lanes.

Oh, and housing costs more here anywhere near frequent transit.

Kyle
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Kyle

It sounds like Seattle has leaders in the city government. Novel idea.

davemess
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davemess

Or they’re not trying to overcomplicate something (i.e. making a property tax, and sending it straight to the voters).

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
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kiel johnson

I dreamed of this last night actually. Bolt bus tickets to Seattle are as low as $1! If this passes might be time to move up to Seattle.

davemess
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davemess

You’re going to move via the Bolt Bus? Awesome!

Todd Boulanger
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Todd Boulanger

$1 for you on Bolt and $100 to FedEx your bike to SEA. It is a nicer 3 day bike ride up to Seattle…once you get to Kelso.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
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kiel johnson

You can take your bike on the bolt bus for free!

Todd Hudson
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Todd Hudson

>Oregon’s property tax system, unlike Washington’s, is both conversation-killingly unfair

This is what happens when you have a way-to-easy-to-put-things-on-the-ballot ballot initiative system. The mob will frequently make short-sighted and costly decisions…

Dave
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Dave

Todd Hudson
>Oregon’s property tax system, unlike Washington’s, is both conversation-killingly unfair
This is what happens when you have a way-to-easy-to-put-things-on-the-ballot ballot initiative system. The mob will frequently make short-sighted and costly decisions…
Recommended 0

Google “Tim Eyman.” We in Washington have short-sighted, brainless ballot initiatives too.

Jeff M
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Jeff M

It’s not semantics, it’s basic economics. Of course they will try to cover their costs; that’s how businesses stay in business. But rental price is not a function of cost + profit. Otherwise, no business would ever go bankrupt – they would simply raise prices until they make enough money.

Jeff M
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Jeff M

Sorry – that was supposed to be in response to Davemess, but ended up with a page error

davemess
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davemess

Except for the rental market in Portland right now (with a ridiculously low occupancy rate, and people desperate for rentals), it might be.

Jeff M
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Jeff M

“Except for the rental market in Portland right now (with a ridiculously low occupancy rate, and people desperate for rentals), it might be [a function of cost + profit].”

Low housing supply doesn’t make rental prices a function of property owner costs. It just means there is more competition, giving property managers the confidence to increase prices.

Over the long term, property tax increases may increase rent because excessive financial burdens will decrease developers’ incentive to create more housing, decreasing the supply-to-demand ratio and, in turn, place upward pressure on rent due to competition, but that process can take years to balance out and is part of a complex economic environment. So, it is not accurate to say someone’s rent went up because of a bond measure or other increase in property costs – the increases in Portland rental prices are simply coincidental with regard to recent tax increases.

soren
Guest
soren

“Property taxes aren’t perfect, but they’re simple, broad-based and fairly progressive.”

Hardly.

Thanks to libertarian anti-tax initiatives in the 90s (measures 47* and 50), Portland has some of the least progressive property taxes in the nation. Many of it’s wealthiest areas paying far, far less than it’s poorest areas (due to limits on RMV increases) resulting in a perverse situation where capping of values caused further inflation of values and increased inequity.

Jeff M
Guest
Jeff M

“Many of it’s wealthiest areas paying far, far less than it’s poorest areas”
Do you mean they are paying a lower percentage of assessed value or they are actually paying less?

In any case, I agree that the 3% cap does present some inequities (although it resets upon sale), but the absence of a cap also creates inequities. In general, the assumption that assessed value is a proxy for wealth is dubious, unless the expectation is to financially force out lower income residents that cannot keep up with a rise in housing prices and the subsequent increase in assessed value, especially without a cap. In that case, a capital gains tax on the sale seems more progressive than an annual hike based on market forces.

I guess I’m having a hard time understanding how property taxes are at all progressive.

davemess
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davemess

I was just looking at a Buckman house for sale (on Ankeny). Zillow estimates it at $500k, and they paid $3500 in property taxes last year. Zillow puts my house (in far outer SE) at $205 and we paid almost $2900.

It’s completely unbelievable to me that this is happening in 2015 in a city that is supposedly heavily “progressive”.

Terry D-M
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Terry D-M

We absolutely must fix this. California has caps as well, and experiences this type of compression, but at LEAST the property taxes reset upon sale. Hence, if a neighborhood gentrifies, as inner east has….or in NE where it is the worst, then the property taxes would reflect the most recent sales price. In the areas of NE where there has been the worst displacement, their property taxes are SO low sometimes that they are paying just a fraction of what someone one of the same value would in your neck of the woods.

davemess
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davemess

Oh I know, I’ve heard from folks in Boise, who are paying $800/year in taxes, on probably $300k+ houses.

soren
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soren

Irvington is even worse.

Terry D-M
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Terry D-M

Due to all the issues mentioned, property taxes in Portland to pay for our bikeway retrofit would not work, hence why it is so important to get a progressive fee structure in place. Unless of course we do a full statewide tax overhaul.

I do however take issue with this statement: “Seattle is bigger by most measures, after all”

Population, yes by 7%, 652,000 compared to 609,000 for Portland, but in square miles, Excluding Water: Seattle, 84 square miles, Portland, 133 square miles.

So really, we are a LOT physically bigger and not really that much smaller in population. The Seattle metro area is a lot bigger, but that is not the question. We are starting with a more connected and larger bikeway network, but I am also pretty sure we will catch up to Seattle in population as well in the not so distant future since both cities are land locked and we are adding density fast. The most recent numbers I can find is that our growth rate is 25% higher than Seattle’s. Seattle just SEEMS bigger as it is the main hub of a much larger metro area.

steve novick
Guest
steve novick

You gotta be kidding, Mr. Andersen. A few points:

(1) We polled on a property tax for transportation early last year. We asked people if they would prefer a property tax to a monthly fee (which itself wasn’t very popular), and by 59% to 32%, people said no. What evidence do you have that a property tax is viable? The parks bond passed handily because it was (as the campaign repeatedly said) NOT a tax increase, but a renewal of an expiring tax.
(2) The statement that a property tax is progressive is absurd, especially in Portland, where assessed value is largely based on what a property was worth in 1995. People in recently gentrified areas pay far less than they should based on real market value. People who live in areas that haven’t gentrified since 1995 – like east Portland – pay more than their fair share.
(3) So I didn’t propose anything simple and broad-based and progressive? What do you have against my proposal to have an income tax that (for married people) starts at 0.1% for income between $35,000 and $60,000, then moves to 0.2% for income between $60,000 and $100,000, 0.3% between $100,000 and $250,000, and 0.4% above $250,000? Is that not “broad-based” enough because it exempts people under $35,000? We didn’t move forward with that – yet; it’s still an option – partly because we knew the PBA was prepared to fight it, and it wasn’t clear that progressive groups with an interest in transportation had the resources to fight a strong campaign for it.

What we had last year in Portland was (1) an array of progressive groups saying that they could not support anything that is not income-based, (2) a business group saying it would oppose anything income-based, (3) nobody volunteering to put serious resources into a campaign for ANY option, (4) polling showing a property tax would be unpopular, (5) polling showing a sales tax (which many jurisdictions use to fund transportation) would be WILDLY unpopular. For BikePortland to suggest that “it’s all very simple, the solution’s as plain as the nose on your face, if only our politicians were as smart as Seattle’s.” is ridiculous.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Guest
kiel johnson

Commissioner Novick, why are you afriad of the PBA? You will win more votes by doing the right and tough thing than any campaign contributions they might provide. Give people something to fight for! The entire thing seemed very back room and didn’t leave people who wanted to support something with many options. Why not do the income based plan, was Fritz not on board? Seemed like she was until it was caved in by the PBA leaving you with nothing. Give people the chance to mount a strong campaign. I’d love to see a politician have the courage and smarts to say “private automobiles are not the future”. Until we have those leaders I’ll continue to plan my move to Seattle. Also Barbur road diet WTF?

Mike
Guest
Mike

I am curious as to what the future of transportation looks like. People say that cars aren’t the future but are bikes the answer? Light rail? Buses? I have a hard time believing cars being phased out at least in our life time

Terry D-M
Guest
Terry D-M

I am very interested as to why you thought there would not be a swelling of support for the progressive fee?

I brought the progressive fee forward to my NA T/LU committee, and then postponed the comprehensive plan a month so the full board could discuss and endorse it, as I thought since it was time sensitive it took precedence. Then I sent a very nice email with our Board’s UNANIMOUS support for the residential side to your office, and the rest of council, offering our help and support. I fully expected you to add our organization to a list of supporters to defend the street fee. I never did see any list. Another group I am also part of endorsed the progressive fee structure, admittedly with even more progressive caveats, but you can not run a city on consensus.

I did not get a thank you e-mail to the official NA communication, nor to the next two follow up e-mails as the situation changed. It was only when the fee moved to the regressive one acceptable to the PBA, and I returned with a forth e-mail explaining we would have to withdraw our support, and that we felt like we were not getting listened to, did I get a response. I went out to support it since I believed in the fee: personally and through two organizations, but did not in the end feel supported by your office.

Hence I wonder if it is that there was not support, or that you were not listening.

inwe
Guest
inwe

For what it’s worth, I did not vote for the parks’ levy because it was a renewal of an existing tax; honestly could not have cared less. I voted for the parks’ levy because it was the right thing to do; because I can see and appreciate the incredible parks we have; because I respect the work of the city in developing and maintaining these parks; because I recognize what a tremendous value we all place in our city’s parks.

The same cannot be said, by any stretch of the imagination, for our transportation system or the Street User Fee in any of its incarnations. There, instead, I see little but waste, inequity, and city pandering to selfish, destructive interests. Oh, and a ton of subsidized automobile storage…

davemess
Guest
davemess

T”here, instead, I see little but waste, inequity, and city pandering to selfish, destructive interests.”

I think you have blinders on if you are not seeing this stuff also in the Parks dept.

soren
Guest
soren

I believe that if your were to take a populist stand against the PBA on this issue you would see groundswell of support.

EngineerScotty
Guest

The big problem with Oregon property taxes is not the 3% RMV increase limit, but the 1% and 0.5% caps:

Regardless of anything else, and excluding bonded indebtedness, property taxes in Oregon are limited to 1.5% of assessed value: 1/3 of this (0.5%) goes to schools, 2/3 (1.0%) goes to other municipal functions.

Say you live in a town in which the county taxes are nominally 0.3% OF MV, the city taxes are 0.5%, the parks district gets 0.1%, the fire district gets 0.1%, an urban renewal district gets 0.1%, the water/sewer bureau gets 0.1%, and the library system 0.05%. (unlike Portland, many cities don’t operate their own park systems, fire departments, public utilities, etc–these are handled by TVFR or Clean Water Services, etc.)

You’ll notice that adds up to 1.25% of MV in this example. Thus, it all gets compressed–each entity gets 80% of what they are “supposed” to be getting.

That said–capital improvement projects can be funded with bonded debt, which are not subject to the 1.5% limit.

A bigger problem Portland seems to have–is that our local right-wing is fairly well mobilized, and many of them live in the city limits and resent Portlandia with a passion. in addition, we have a large disaffected population east of I-205 who thinks (not entirely incorrectly) that they are getting screwed, and for whom bike infrastructure is probably a secondary issue. (Sidewalks and transit would be of more use).

Were a tax increase of this sort put on the Portland ballot–who thinks it would pass?

davemess
Guest
davemess

“property taxes in Oregon are limited to 1.5% of assessed value”

Is this actually true? Or if true is it actually followed. I know that’s not happening in my neighborhood where most people are taxed at 2.5-4% of assessed value. And the increases yearly are not following a 3% rule either. Some houses taxes are going up 25% in a single year.
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.
It’s great that you can make these laws (many of which seem to be broken), but they don’t even seem to be following them.

“a large disaffected population east of I-205”

Many also exist west of 205 (Lents, Brentwood-Darlington, Cully, etc.).
When it comes to lack of infrastructure and services “East” Portland is not an exact location.

2 Lessons from Eugene
Guest
2 Lessons from Eugene

Thanks to Michael, Steve and others for the great discussion. Here’s 2 lessons from Eugene for Portland:

1) Business/big buck calls for “broad-based” taxes are bogus. The tiny amount of money squeezed out of low-income voters at progressive rates won’t reduce higher bracket taxes much. The only reason the rich want the tax “broad-based” is because it will have broad-based opposition, making it easier to kill. The Measure 66 income tax increase on the wealthy ($100,000+) passed overwhelmingly in Eugene (and in Portland), but a broad-based local income tax for schools failed in Eugene (even with a progressive rate structure).

2) Income taxes below $60,000 at low, progressive rates generate very little actual revenue, especially compared to the negative votes generated. They just aren’t worth it given the voter opposition generated by people struggling to pay their bills.

Portland should pass a progressive income tax that exempts households below $60,000. This would capture the most votes and the most revenue. Crazy? Exempting below $60,000 is hardly radical, it would just roughly mirror the effective tax rates in the federal income tax.

Paul H
Guest
Paul H

I was in Seattle this weekend, so I’m way late for this discussion, but I saw a couple things of interest while up there.

We stayed at a hotel near Pioneer Square, on 2nd Ave. where there’s this neat two-way protected bikeway. I was amazed how few people took advantage of it, even during rush hour. (The weather was wet, but not horrible.) It was empty most of the time. I don’t know how folks optimize commute routes in Seattle, and perhaps the 2nd Ave location was a poor choice, but anecdotally I’d say that the voters didn’t get a great bang for their buck.

In fact, I saw more bike commuters down on Alaskan Way, which is under active construction. Again, this is merely an anecdotal observation, but it seemed weird to see plenty of cyclists on a busy street under construction and almost no one on a parallel route with a protected bike lane.