Like eczema, kudzu, and Shia LaBoeuf, the odious notion of imposing a special tax on bicycling keeps popping back up, despite our best efforts to keep it down. The latest outbreak comes courtesy of the Pacific Northwest, where Washington State legislator Judy Clibborn [a Democrat] proposed a $25 fee on the sale of new bikes over $500 [though she seems to acknowledge the pointless symbolism of the whole exercise]. And in Oregon, legislator Tobias Read [also a Democrat, like the sponsors of Maryland’s helmet mandate bill. With friends like these…] has proposed to “impose” a “voluntary” bridge toll on bicyclists, in order to, “start a conversation.”
This conversation has not only been going on for years, it is rather one-sided, and definitely tiresome. Any sensible use tax policy seeks to discourage wasteful or damaging activities by charging more for them (like DC’s bag tax), and encourages activities that contribute to public goods by charging less for them, or even subsidizing them (“Cash for Clunkers”, sorta). Public goods provided by someone choosing to ride a bicycle in lieu of driving are reduced infrastructure costs, reduced personal costs of congestion, reduced public health costs (did you know that an estimated half of the annual $147 BILLION in direct health spending PER YEAR related to obesity is paid by the Gubmint?), reduced GHG emissions, and reduced costs of dependence on foreign oil (both direct costs and costs of security).
I would love to ask Representatives Clibborn and Read [and the Maryland legislature, and basically everyone in American government] the magic question: “If more people rode bicycles, would we all be better off?” A tip of the cap to Washington legislator Ed Orcutt (R) for his knee-slapping climatological rational for “no.”
Seemingly, the sole purpose for a bike tax/fee is, in a best-case interpretation, to provide “an important starting point in an inevitable discussion about sharing road costs.” All those public goods should be sufficient to do so, but we are where we are, Americans. If this nonsense is “inevitable” (and I’m far from conceding that point), then how about we “start a conversation” about how this rot might actually work? Here we go, with something I uncleveringly refer to as the “Bike Fund”:
Do Incredible Stuff – If I am to pay more to transport myself in a way that provides all those benefits to everybody else, I will not pay to just keep slapping down a few sharrows and wave racks. I want extraordinary projects. I want stuff that will deliver the first-class, connected bicycle priority network I described a few months ago.
Guarantee the DOT Baseline Obligation - This bike tax nonsense has arisen out of the mistaken perception that our DOTs have been coddling us with massive expenditures for premium treatment. Before we begin paying more, we ought to require a firm commitment, through policies, staffing, and short- and long-term plans, that our transportation agencies will accept bicycling as a core part of their mission, and will fully obligate existing transportation formula funds for bicycling (like TAP and CMAQ) as a precondition of throwing more of our money into the till.
Independence and Merit – If bicyclists must pay, then bicyclists will pick. Whether voluntary or mandatory, whether toll or excise fee, revenue paid into the “Bike Fund” should be used on projects selected on technical merits, evaluated by a bicycle advisory council. Projects could be judged on factors like marginal ridership, equity, health impact, or air-quality impacts.
Leverage Other Funds – As noted above, a DOT commitment to fully obligate the “usual suspect” transportation funding sources in its plans would precede this “Bike Fund.” Revenue would be used to match transportation funding from other, traditionally road-centric funding sources, and “flexed” over for bicycles.
As noted by Rep. Clibborn, the revenue generated by a bike tax would be negligible anyway. So, let me propose that the “Bike Fund” leverage its revenue to seek complementary funding from three other sources: municipal exactions, public health funds, and project-specific ‘crowdfunding.’
- Exactions from developers (such as money paid in-lieu of providing parking, or making improvements to a road adjacent to a property) are a lucrative source of funds for local governments. In areas such as parking and affordable housing, opportunities are sometimes given for developers to pay into a special-purpose fund to mitigate the issue, instead of having to exert the effort to directly provide mitigation measures itself. There are complications with this proposal, but there’s a lot of money there.
- Public health stakeholders, such as government agencies, nonprofits, and healthcare providers, are recognizing the role of active transportation (such as bicycling), and are increasingly becoming involved in project funding. Bikesharing (in systems such as Boston’s Hubway and Minneapolis’ NiceRide) has attracted direct public health investment, perhaps due to its direct relationship with deploying projects that get people riding. The “Bike Fund” could become the counterpart for bicycle facilities, by providing a funding repository where public health money could go solely toward high-impact merit-based project delivery.
- Crowdfunding of individual projects, as they move closer to delivery, would allow for voluntary community donations to speed projects along. How many other transportation modes can count on voluntary YIMBY donations for revenue, by the way?
So, to sum up… If we are to pay more, let’s demand more. A “Bike Fund” will help pay for premium facilities that complement the efforts of DOTs that do their duty. We’ll pick the projects, and we’ll seek out complementary sources of funding to multiply our influence. How does that sound? Let’s “converse,” legislators.