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Bike tax a big moment for cycling movement says Oregon Congressman Blumenauer

Posted by on July 13th, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Congressional Reception-10

“It’s an acknowledgment of the power of the cycling community.”
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

The face of bicycling in Oregon isn’t that mad about our state’s new, $15 tax on new bicycles.

U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who served six years in the Oregon House of Representatives and nearly 10 years as a Portland city commissioner, shared via a phone interview yesterday that he feels the tax is a “modest fee” that isn’t that big of a deal when viewed in the light of the overall infrastructure funding package.

I caught up with Blumenauer from his office in Washington D.C. where he’s standing against strong political winds.

“I think this is a really great opportunity for the cycling community to take a step back and think about the bigger picture,” he said.

Blumenauer probably knows more about the “bigger picture” than anyone in the bike advocacy game. He has fought for bicycle-related transportation funding for about 40 years. During that time he’s heard all the anti-bike arguments you can imagine.

“One of the arguments we hear repeatedly is that cyclists don’t have any skin in the game… so there’s been blowback.” Blumenauer thinks the “cyclists don’t pay” argument has only gotten louder as more money has gone to bike projects. During his tenure in politics, Blumenauer has seen Oregon implement the pioneering 1971 “Bicycle Bill” which sets aside 1 percent of all the state’s highway gas tax money for biking and walking infrastructure (which should equal about $3.7 million per year over ten years in the new bill. And federal programs like Safe Routes to School, Transportation Enhancements, and TIGER grants have funded billions in bike infrastructure. “That’s big money,” he said.

“For me, the bill represents a coming-of-age of the cycling movement. It is part of a key for more resources in the future and it’s an acknowledgment that we’re players.”
— Rep. Blumenauer

Blumenauer acknowledged that, “The cheapest way to solve traffic congestion is to get somebody out of the car in front of you,” and that the Portland region has made “significant improvements in getting more people out of cars and onto bikes.” “But,” he added, “It’s not always as compelling,” which I took to mean bicycling still doesn’t hold the political sway it deserves. And to build more political power, Blumenauer feels it’s essential that bicycle advocates have a seat at the table. In his mind, going along with this tax is simply part of the “give-and-take” of compromises that advocates should expect and engage in.

Given the bill’s unprecedented investment in public transit and Safe Routes to School — and the increased Bike Bill funding thanks to the higher gas tax — Blumenauer sees the bike tax as being “relatively modest” and “an interesting response to some of the people who argue that cyclists don’t pay their own way and that we’re already spending too much on cycling.”

While saying, “It’s not exactly how I would have designed the package,” Blumenauer is positive about the bill overall, calling it “balanced” and an important step for bicycling. “I think it moves us forward and it’s building relationships, trust and momentum that can help us next time; because we’ve got to do a lot more than this. I hope people will take a look at the big picture and see how it all evolves and realize that if we’re going to be players in the bike/ped space, it’s important to be part of the whole process.”

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These two (former NYC DOT chief Janette Sadik-Khan) have some making up to do.

By “process” he means the sausage-making that went into the bill. From his view, lawmakers didn’t ignore cycling. On the contrary, he sees the bill as, “an acknowledgment of the power of the cycling community… We were an important component of the deal-making.”

Here’s a bit more of his comments on that angle of it:

“This was about preserving our seat at the table and showing we’re not opposed to participating… I think that having a little tiny tax makes it less likely that something worse comes out of left field and now a principle has been established that the cycling community is politically important and we are part of the transportation and air quality solution and I think it is highly likely that this will be part of a process that enables us to have a larger footprint in the future and I think the precedent is we’re going to be listened to and we’re flexible and we have a broad-based approach.”

Continuing on that line of thinking later in our conversation he said, “For me, the bill represents a coming-of-age of the cycling movement. It is part of a key for more resources in the future and it’s an acknowledgment that we’re players.”

Is he concerned that the bike tax tarnishes Oregon’s biking reputation he has done so much to burnish? That question made him think of the snarky tweet from his friend and former New York City DOT Director Janette Sadik-Khan. Last week she posted,”Oregon adopts nation’s 1st & only bike tax. I guess the longtime US cycling leader finally got tired of winning.”

Chuckling, he said, “I haven’t had a chance to respond to Janette, but what I want to say is, ‘Janette, I love you… But is a small fee dedicated to bike infrastructure that’s part of a much bigger package, really so misguided? And wouldn’t some of the flack you caught in New York have been moderated a little tiny bit if it appeared the cycling community had more skin in the game?'”

Oregon’s bike tax is making news around the country and it’s likely other policymakers are politicians are eyeing it for their states as well. I asked Blumenauer how he’ll respond when someone asks him if they should pursue a bike tax. “I’d tell them to take a look, not at the tax, but at the package. Look at the process, look at the dollars devoted to cycling… This tax is providing an answer to the age-old controversy that bicycles get a free ride, that it’s not fair they don’t pay for the roads… I’d tell them that this was an effort in Oregon to smooth the way for what is a significant package.”

How will we know if it works or not?

“You have to ask yourself, what can you do with it? Can you use this to build broader support? Can you get more momentum? This is just a step, now it’s up to us to make sure all the resources materialize and that the investments are done wisely and that we look, going forward, about what we need to do for bike infrastructure.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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CaptainKarma
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CaptainKarma

Bicycles should be incentivized, not taxed.

SD
Guest
SD

Would have been much better for everyone if it was a check box donation on state tax form. More revenue, not regressive, not a penalty for local bike shops, reflective of Oregon values, not an open door for escalating the tax amount, and less likely to be implemented by anti-bike states.

Paul Atkinson
Guest
Paul Atkinson

To me, what makes this tax bad policy — in the big picture — is that it’s a response to the false assertion that people on bicycles weren’t paying a “fair share.” The correct response to false information is to provide correct information rather than to compromise.

This only gives the next lie more power.

Adam
Subscriber

I’m getting real sick of this “skin in the game” argument. As if I don’t pay income tax, property tax, etc. If anything, drivers don’t have enough skin in the game, since the gas tax still isn’t keeping pace with the maintenance backlog we’ve accrued, not to mention the unnecessary highway widening this bill will fund. In an ideal world, governments should be subsidizing programs that are good for society, not taxing them – things like affordable housing, health care, and low-impact transportation should be encouraged, not slapped with symbolic taxes to appease out-of-touch carheads.

It’s saddening to see Rep. Blumenauer buying into the right-wing mantra that cyclists don’t pay their fair share.

rick
Guest
rick

Users of metal-studded cars aren’t players in Oregon. No tax and no fee for them. I just saw a truck using them yesterday on Sylvan on SW Scholls Ferry Road.

BikeSlobPDX
Subscriber
BikeSlobPDX

I just bought a bike in May, so I won’t be paying that tax any time soon. Yet somehow the fact that the tax exists means I’m now no longer considered a freeloader. This is making less and less sense.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

Great perspective from someone who has probably helped guide more money go to bicycling than anyone else in the country (maybe?). I am also not that upset by the $15 for the same reasons Earl gave. One of my first thoughts when I heard about the tax was, “I wonder what Terry Parker is going to do with his time now?” He is going to have to get rid of all his “tax the bike” hats and signs. Who knows, maybe he will start riding a bike on one of the new awesome trails that are built with this money.

Todd Hudson
Guest
Todd Hudson

One thing that keeps not getting mentioned is Oregon’s constitutional requirement of 60% majority for any tax increase. Both chambers needed Republican votes for this to pass. The bike tax was the bone thrown to get those votes.

The “skin in the game” argument is inane, but the alternative to the bike tax was to watch the entire bill die and just hope things get solved in the next session.

Al
Guest
Al

I am deeply disappointed with Blumenauer about this.

I’m disappointed that he chose to speak out without being informed about the process that burdened us with the bike tax. I’m disappointed that he chose to repeat the “skin in the game” phrase which, given the recent trend in cycling fatalities, is inappropriate. I’m disappointed that he is setting up the anti-cycling interest groups and politicians for greater gains. It would have been better had he simply declined to comment on the tax.

Talk of a bicycle tax has popped up in legislative sessions before and it never amounted to anything. I suspect that, this time, it became reality because:
– rural republican lawmakers were upset that Connect Oregon which is funded by the Oregon Lottery to promote intermodal transportation and typically spends money on rail and aviation projects in their districts, spent a small pittance on bicycle projects in its last round of funding.
– they added the tax to offset money Connect Oregon would potentially spend on bicycling in the future to leave lottery funding free to pay for their pet rail and aviation projects
– democrats were focused elsewhere and found the reliable source of revenue appealing or simply allowed the bike tax for some other line item concession in the bill. When asked, they will respond almost verbatim to Blumenauer but I suspect that there was a deal.

Some facts that refute the need for a bicycle sales tax:
– cyclists already overpay into transportation infrastructure because a considerable amount is derived from the general fund and bicycle infrastructure costs are negligible compared to motorist infrastructure costs
– most cyclists are also motorists like myself. In fact, every time I commute to work pedaling, there’s a motorcycle and car in my garage that sits there unused. I paid into the transportation infrastructure like a motorist but I’m only using the system like a cyclist which already puts me far ahead of the typical driver in terms of having “skin in the game” to use that hateful phrase.
– cyclists tend to have more than one bicycle and yet we can only use one at a time. In fact some bicycles like track bikes will never see a road and yet will pay into the system none the less.
– cycling generates massive positive externalities for the state of Oregon by improved health of the population and the world by reduced carbon emissions. This alone should make cycling an activity worth subsidizing!

A bicycle sales tax makes about as much sense as a shoe sales tax to pay for sidewalks.

Is it possible to ballot this tax away and who will do so?

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

The way I like to look at is if some benevolent space aliens arrived and used their dematerializer ray to zap all the automobiles, SUV’s and pickups on earth and turn them into topsoil, fresh water and glaciers the cyclists wouldn’t need any road infrastructure spending at all. The existing roads, sidewalks and bridges ( now free of cars) would last us for generations with minimal maintenance. But if the evil aliens arrived to punish mankind and used their “karma” ray to eliminate all bicycles and the knowledge to make them then the roads would be even more crowded and even more infrastructure spending would be required.

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

I am curious from the announcement yesterday on the news (KGW) of the fact that Oregon and specifically greater Portland was given permission to institute tolls on the federal highways for the purposes of paying for the I-5, 26, I-84, and I-205 improvements. Is this the billion dollar transportation grant money or in addition to pay for the 14 years that it will take to finish the 1 year projects?
217 will have to be included as well. It will take care of the employment problem manning the toll stations 24/7 on ALL the entrances and exits from the freeways. it is the only way to catch all the trucks, cars, Washington commuters in SOV’s ETC…

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

A very good rundown of the true costs of driving, from The Atlantic, a couple years ago.

“A report published earlier this year confirms, in tremendous detail, a very basic fact of transportation that’s widely disbelieved: Drivers don’t come close to paying for the costs of the roads they use. Published jointly by the Frontier Group and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, “Who Pays for Roads?” exposes the myth that drivers are covering what they’re using.

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/driving-true-costs/412237/

I wear many hats
Guest
I wear many hats

Perception is EVERYTHING. Just look at the local mountain biking debate. Earl is right, it was worth doing because it gained more for active transportation than it cost active transporters. It was well worth paying a pittance to refute that tired inaccurate argument that cyclists don’t pay.

Allan L.
Guest
Allan L.

Who says we’re not mad about it? I’m mad about it.

grrlpup
Guest
grrlpup

I’m not gnashing my teeth over the fifteen dollars, but I’m still a little bummed by Rep. Blumenauer’s remarks. The cycling community now has “skin in the game” and that’s the same as “a seat at the table” and they’re now “participating” because they’re paying a new fee? I think our government should be looking out for everyone including kids, old people, poor people, et cetera, not operating as pay-to-play. I know that’s naive but I still wanted to say it.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

So here is my pitch to make lemons into lemonade…

…how about documenting this purchase “fee” paid with a secure sticker that would document to drivers that the bike’s [lifetime] purchase tax has been paid AND help track it in case of theft…

Phil Richman
Subscriber

We need to stop referring to ourselves as “the cycling community.”

Mossby Pomegranate
Guest
Mossby Pomegranate

Oh please…Blumenauaer is such a *******. Have your lives on a bike really improved because of this politician? Please site specific examples. I can’t think of any.

Jenya
Guest
Jenya

I’m disappointed by the comments and attitude of Earl Blumenauer here. But he didn’t really have anything to do with this bill and bike tax.

Serious question: how do we get a real bike advocate elected to office? Can we replace “skin-in-the-game” Oregon Senator Rod Monroe, who apparently doesn’t think that people who bike have enough skin in the game, despite spilling blood on the streets. There are many of us who own cars, pay taxes and still choose to bike to work, and many more who would choose to bike if it was safer and more convenient than driving.

Monroe is involved in the transportation committees and is a big proponent of widening our freeways for business interests. He also is the biggest landlord in the Legislature, and will block any attempts at rent control. The guy is 74 years old and has been politicking long enough. We should be able to do better.

Wisconsin Resident
Guest
Wisconsin Resident

I lost all respect for Blumenauer and his complete lack of understanding on how infrastructure is paid for. More importantly for those of us outside Oregon you pretty much just screwed us over as now bike opposition is gathering around this bill and proposing similar measures. It is extremely important that the “bike supporters” in OR understand that for the rest of the country, outside of highways, almost all local infrastructure is paid for by sales/property/income tax which we contribute to disproportionately as cyclists considering we do almost zero damage to the roads. Even the federal highway fund which trickles down to the states is now supported with annual transfers of $10 billion + from the general fund.

To “get a seat at the table” how about you start educating your constituents on how infrastructure is funded instead of resorting to extremely regressive and counter productive taxes.

Mike Sanders
Guest
Mike Sanders

This idea that accepting the bike tax was needed not only to get the transportation bill passed but proves to the powers that be that the ped/bike community now has, and deserves, a seat at the table, is interesting. If the provision wasn’t there, the argument goes, the bill would’ve died, and we would’ve had to wait until next session for that bill, which might not have had any ped/bike funding at all. Earl’s right. This is a step on a long road, and we must look at it in terms of the Big Picture. Trump wants to kill all transcontinental Amtrak service, which is becoming more bike friendly, on the argument that we don’t need, or can afford, Coast to Coast service. Trump’s vision calls for N-S service on the west and east coasts, and a few locals out of Chicago covering the surrounding area only (Chicago-St. Louis, for example). Earl must defend Amtrak’s very existence, and we need to help him do that. Bike friendly train service is part of the Big Picture, along with the national bike route system, which needs wider and fuller support. CT, for example, now has 21 separate projects filling in gaps on the East Coast Greenway which are rapidly being approved for construction ASAP. Getting a statewide bike route network in Oregon – and getting the Trans-American Trail (Route 76) to Oregon – will require total commitment from everyone at every level. In an era when congressional leadership is almost nonexistent, Earl is one if the brave, one of the bold few who still believe in leadership. His POV is important.

nmr
Subscriber
nmr

Bike tax makes about as much sense as a shoe tax.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Please stop using the “skin in the game” terminology. I’ve said repeatedly that if people want to complain that bicyclists get a free ride and pay no taxes and have too much money spent on “them”—and they aren’t out there taking advantage of all of the purported largesse afforded to bicyclists by becoming one—they are hypocrites. Those that “have to drive” are a much smaller portion of the population than many imagine, and the main reason those who could ride a bicycle for transportation don’t is that they don’t want to put any real skin in the game.

To use this terminology doesn’t just make one sound like a cigar-chewing bookie—it is offensive when bicyclists are being injured and killed every day by carelessly-piloted automobiles.

Let’s just say, “we want people to be taxed specifically for riding a bike, but taxing them to own a new one is the best we could get done. This time…”.

JeffS
Guest
JeffS

We should have a compelling reason for every new tax, fee and fine implemented by the government. This tax fails that test, largely because of the insignificant amount of money it generates.

I have yet to hear anyone state what the tax will cost to implement and maintain.

Bluenidiot
Guest
Bluenidiot

Earl’s a **** who should retire. The bill is full of regressive taxes and anti-environmental projects.

DIMcyclist
Guest
DIMcyclist

I really don’t mind paying my taxes; I think it’s essential to having a state & government that can respond appropriately to public needs. That said, I still think this is yet another glaring example of Oregon’s simple-minded, ham-fisted, & ad hoc approach toward taxation.

Whether our state & its residents like it or not, at some point we will inevitably be faced with having to reassess & fully overhaul our state’s entire tax system from top to bottom, hopefully with due patience, to arrive at a system that’s more ethical & fair for everyone, business, private, or public.

DIMcyclist
Guest
DIMcyclist

Oregon is, like- ground-zero for regressive taxation… People complain about high personal income taxes & yet the state is constantly going through the couch for spare change because those very people vote down measures to fairly tax business, industry & uber-high earners? A street usage fee because a 2% hike in the gas tax seems politically risky since it might offend gas guzzlers? Gimme a freaking break! Our property tax system is a joke by almost any reasonable standard- one house pays $3500/ year and the one next door pays twice as much because someone remodeled a kitchen, finished a basement, or improved a roof? Absurd. There are houses around here that are falling apart because their owners can’t afford the tax increases if they actually fixed them up; it’s ridiculous.

BB
Guest
BB

1. How does this stop someone form buying a bike online? This seems a big disadvantage for local shops.

2. I also believe this validates that cyclist needed to pay something in order to be included to the exclusive road club. As if they added no value otherwise. Sometimes value is not seen as $$ but in quality of life given back to everyone.

3. How does this validate that pedestrians pay their fare share?

4. If I am finally going to be included into the road club with this tax. Then why are their no owner laws on the books? I should be able to charge the owner of that vehicle to some civil or criminal action. But right now I need to identify the driver, which renders the plate useless.

5. By paying this tax how do I feel included in this exclusive road club now? What has changed from before?

You ever hear about instant karma?

SLAPFACE
Guest
SLAPFACE

Slap in the face to think, the gov. failed to put in lanes for cyclists when they built the roads. Now need to charge cyclists to redo the failure.

Mark Smith
Guest
Mark Smith

It’s not a big deal. Bikes are taxed in 46 states. Pretty much guessing…they still sell there. Bowtie earl is right. This is about recognizing bikes. Not diminishing them.