To help fill an ongoing revenue shortfall at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Mayor Mike McGinn is proposing an increase of five to 10 percent in the commercial parking tax, as well as a $20 vehicle-license fee. However, the city council has proposed using the same revenues to pay for improvements to the downtown waterfront instead, setting up a potential conflict during this year's budget negotiations.
Without new revenue, McGinn said, "we're not going to be able to keep up" with the need to maintain city streets. "We're going to see our maintenance backlog start to grow again on our local streets."
SDOT director Peter Hahn, who was also at this morning's briefing, added, "The picture is pretty bleak."
The budget gap is the result of shortfalls in revenues across SDOT's budget, including taxes on new development, gas taxes, and the city's general fund.
In addition to maintenance, under McGinn's plan the new revenues would pay to help implement the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plans, both of which are badly underfunded. At the current rate of funding, it would take 80 years to complete 20 percent of projects in the pedestrian plan. The city estimates the bike plan will cost $240 million; currently, however, SDOT is only spending $3 million a year to implement the plan. Even if the city council passes McGinn's proposal, it wouldn't come close to providing the $30 million a year bike and pedestrian advocates want the city to spend on "Walk, Bike, Ride," another McGinn initiative that currently lacks funding.
Some of the new revenues under McGinn's plan would also help pay to replace the South Park Bridge.
Neither the tax increase nor the new fee would require a public vote. However, city council staffers earlier proposed using both revenue sources to pay for improvements to the downtown waterfront as part of Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, rather than street maintenance or bike and pedestrian projects. I have a call in to council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen to find out what he thinks of McGinn's proposal.
SDOT has immediate troubles, too. This year alone, the agency faces a midyear budget shortfall of $7.8 million, or about 14 percent of its total budget of $55 million. To fill that gap, the department is eliminating one pothole crew, eliminating some services, cutting vacant positions, and deferring maintenance on things like traffic lights, warning beacons, mowing, and lane markings. The agency will also adopt a new approach to potholes, filling them less frequently (within 72 hours, rather than the current 48) but more durably.