Licata v. Fox on $60 Car Tabs

By Erica C. Barnett September 14, 2011

In a weird twist of fate, the city council's leftiest member, Nick Licata, was pitted against Seattle Displacement Coalition founder John Fox and Maple Leaf neighborhood activist David Miller at a meeting of the Metropolitan Democratic Club on the second floor of the downtown 600 Stewart building this afternoon. The issue: A proposal on the November ballot that would increase car-tab fees in the city by $60 to pay for street maintenance, transit improvements, and bike and pedestrian projects.

Licata (who left in the company of Viet Shelton, a staffer at Transportation Choices Coalition who used to work for former mayor Greg Nickels) is for the fee; Fox and Miller---traditional Licata allies---are against it. Historically, Licata has been one of the biggest opponents of Vulcan's development and transportation plans in South Lake Union---voting against upzoning their properties from 65 feet to 85, opposed buying property back from Vulcan that the city had previously sold to the company, was the lone vote against giving Vulcan a tax break for moderate-income housing, and opposed former mayor Greg Nickels' proposed fix for the Mercer Mess in the neighborhood, among many other anti-Vulcan votes.

Licata, historically the council's loudest opponent of fixed-rail transit, called electric trolley buses (which aren't streetcars, but are on fixed routes) "probably one of the best investments you can make" in transit and noting that the fee only pays for planning to build two specific extensions of the streetcar---from South Lake Union to First Hill and from the Capitol Hill light rail station to north Capitol Hill. And he responded, preemptively, to the criticism that the flat car-tab fee is regressive (as Fox noted shortly, "a guy who drives a Lexus plays about the same amount as a family that buys a 30 or 40 year-old Chevrolet"), acknowledging, "it's a bad tax, but I don't think anything better is going to come along. Gas tax would be better, but we can't use that." The state constitution requires gas taxes to pay for state highways.

"If you believe that transit should improve in Seattle, I think it's something you should support," said Licata---who, perhaps significantly, started taking the bus to work every day a few years ago. "If you think that [transit] is bad and we should do something else, then you should oppose it."

Fox shot back: "The problem with buses is the need for more buses, more service hours, and more routes. There is not one dime for more buses" in the proposal. (Fact check: King County funds bus service; the city can only pay for road improvements that speed up bus performance.) Fox also criticized the plan for focusing on streetcar and bike improvements over bridges and road maintenance ("I call it the slush fund for [Vulcan founder] Paul Allen's streetcar," he said), and suggested that impact fees for developers would be a better way to pay for transportation improvements.

Miller, who ran for city council in 2009 (Mike O'Brien won that seat), piled on the anti-bike bandwagon, saying that he personally thought "kids walking in the middle of the street in North and South Seattle" because there are no sidewalks is "more important than bike parking," a comment that elicited an "amen" or two from the crowd of about 30 MDC members. In reality, all bike improvements, taken together, would make up less than 7 percent of the proposed car-tab package.

On the way out, I congratulated Licata on being in the pocket of Vulcan, as Fox alleged. "I wish!" he said, before striding south toward city hall.
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