What’s an advocacy group to do when they strongly oppose a policy idea, but are cognizant of the broader political context that surrounds it? It’s a complicated question that often has no easy answer.
The Bicycle Excise Tax
What we know so far:
- 5% tax on new bicycle purchases.
- Estimated to raise $2 million a year.
- Funds would be earmarked for off-street “commuter” paths.
- Would only apply to bicycles over $500 retail and with wheels 26-inches and larger.
- Nothing has been formally decided yet.
This is the conundrum The Street Trust finds itself in with the transportation revenue package being drafted in Salem as I type this. In the first legislative session since changing their name from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in order to expand their mission to include walking and transit, the Portland-based nonprofit has already gotten an earful from members about a controversial bicycle excise tax that’s part of the $8 billion proposal. The idea so far (the bill language hasn’t been finalized) is to levy a 5 percent tax on the purchase of new bicycles to raise an estimated $2 million a year. The policy has emerged as a way to dispel the popular notion that “bicyclists don’t pay their fair share” and as a way to fund construction of “off-street” bicycle paths that can’t be funded with gas taxes (as per the state constitution).
Gerik Kransky is policy director at The Street Trust (he also represents Transportation for Oregon’s Future, a coalition that includes transit, environmental and land-use groups). He’s the only paid lobbyist for bicycling (and now walking and transit) who makes regular trips to Salem and he’s been especially active in hearings and meetings with lawmakers sinse the start of this session.
I interviewed Kransky yesterday to learn more about where The Street Trust stands on the bike tax and how it fits into the larger revenue package. I’ve edited some of his replies for readability.
How do you think we got to this point?
“This is an idea has come up in every legislative session over last seven years since I’ve been paying attention. It’s never gained a lot of traction because in the past it always felt punitive, an “us vs them” type of thing and it would always fizzle out in its first committee. But this year is different. It doesn’t seem to matter what party a legislator is in they’re all talking about this proposal. They’re trying to raise a lot of money. And at last night’s hearing, [Senator Brian] Boquist was describing a process to reach some level of partiy among road users to get everyone paying more. This [the bike tax] is just a part of that.”
Does The Street Trust support the bike tax?
“We don’t have a bill yet. So it’s hard to say what we’re looking at. We’re still waiting to see the bill language before we take a formal position. That being said, we’ve already done a couple things with legislators over the past few months that you can see in this informal proposal.
Any revenue raised from bike tax will be dedicated to off-street bicycle and pedestrian pathways — like hard surface commuter trails similar to the I-205 path [Joint Transportation Committee Co-Chair Senator Lee Beyer has specifically said the money isn’t intended for “recreational paths”]. We knew going in that that’s a place where we lack revenue on the bike/ped infrastructure side. I’ve always been concerned that if we put a bike tax on the table those would be the only dollars the DOT would want to spend on bike lanes, so we thought, let’s keep this out of the right-of-way and legislators agreed with us. So that’s an early victory.
We also hope to see a few exemptions to the tax. It would only apply to adult bicycles and to bikes over $500. [Sen. Boquist stated at Wednesday’s hearing that it would apply to bikes with 26-inch wheels and larger.] We hope to see those exemptions and hope that anyone who’s low-income and buying an affordable bike, won’t be be hit by this tax…
We don’t like a bike tax but given that this has traction and some bipartisan support, we’re doing our best to make it good policy and we’re withholding judgment until we see the bill with all the details.”
If you are opposed to a bike tax, why are you working to help move it along? Aren’t you afraid that your work on it actually helps make a policy — one you clearly don’t support — more likely to become a reality?
“That decision is — and always has been — up to legislators… But I want to make this clear: our organization is opposed to bike taxes. Period. We don’t like them. We don’t think it’s an effective method of raising revenue. We don’t want to see any barriers to bicycling. I’ve directly expressed my organization’s opposition to the tax with all members of the JTPM [Joint Transportation Preservation and Maintenance Committee] and in the bik/ped subcommittee. Period. We oppose it. My board [of directors] opposes it. I’ve put that on the record in writing letters and in emails [on March 8th and March 16th of this year]. So far I have given no safe quarter with any legislator.
But if it’s going to happen, I want it to not suck. And at the same time, it’s my job to see that through and our best strategy is to work with legislators to reduce the impact of any potential tax where it matters most [keep it focused on off-street paths, exclude kids bikes and low-income people]. We’ll have to weigh the proposal on balance with the rest of the package*.”
*When it comes to the “rest of the package,” Kransky pointed the amount of funding for biking, walking, and transit-specific projects in this package is about $126 million a year. That’s about three times the amount he says the state currently dedicates to active transportation (around $40 million). It’s an amount that’s, “Orders of magnitude greater than anything that has come out of Salem before.” In that context, Kransky said he believes it’s time to have an, “Honest conversation with legislators about what they’re doing and who’s going to be uncofmortable with the amount of revenue they need to raise.”
What has been the response to the tax idea from your membership so far?
“Everyone who has reached out to me is upset and doesn’t support it. It’s pretty clear that most folks that take time to reach out and engage are unsupportive… and that’s our current board-approved policy — to oppose a bike tax. So operating in a clear space of not supporting a bike tax, and having to do all this support of the package; this is a tough place to be in. This is the toughest political challenge we have faced during my tenure at the organization. In terms of the scope, complexity, and the degree to which it’s interconnected with priorities we have been working on for decades to increase funding for these things — it’s just huge what we can gain.”
The Street Trust hosted a meeting with bike shop owners last week. What has their response been? (Note: BikePortland has surveyed many local bike shops and will share their opinions in a separate post on Monday.)
“I wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but my impression was that everybody was upset. They’re interested in alternatives. They’re not interested in being targeted by this bike tax and we’re asking them to sign-on to a letter that we hope to send in the legislature next week. We’re also exploring some additional options for how they can increase revenue and include all people who ride bikes, not just one specific industry. Some of those ideas are a tire tax for all vehicles including bicycles that would correspond with usage [Kransky also mentioned he’s heard from a lot of people upset that a studded tire tax isn’t on the table. “Maybe there’s room in a tire tax for a studded tire tax as well,” he said.] Let’s use those funds in place of a bicycle excise tax. Another idea would be to have an optional checkbox on state tax returns to make a donation to trails.”
Do you think that by passing a bike tax, bicycling will suddenly enjoy more public and political support?
“No. I’m one of the skeptics who’s been unwilling to think that putting a bike tax on the table as “skin in the game” that would somehow placate people who are upset about bikes on the road or bikes as “freeloaders.” I don’t see it solving political problems for us either and I don’t see it solving policy problems for the state.”
So if it’s bad policy, it won’t be a political “win,” and you oppose it as an organization, why not fight more strongly against it?
“I don’t think we’re in a weak political position [by working with legislators on it] because I don’t think they can pass a state transportation package that fails to invest in safe routes to school or transit at all. We may yet choose to oppose the bike tax and I still wouldn’t expect they’d be able to move a bill without investments in biking and walking and transit because of the breadth of the coaltion we’ve assembled over the years.”
The Joint Transportation Preservation and Modernization Committee has sent their proposal outline to legislative counsel where it is being worked into a formal bill. The committee is scheduled to meet again on Monday (5/15) to continue their discussions. Stay tuned for more coverage.