The C is for Crank

Both McGinn and His Critics Are Wrong About Why Prop. 1 Lost

By Erica C. Barnett November 9, 2011

"Liberal Authoritarian" ? Seattle City Council member and Sierra Clubber Mike O'Brien at the $60 car tab party. Photo by Craig Benjamin

Mayor Mike McGinn and his opponents are both wrong about why Prop. 1, the $60 car tab fee, failed last night.

McGinn, hearkening back to the days when the "roads and transit" ballot measure failed because it tied light rail (which voters wanted) to miles and miles of new freeway lanes (which they didn't), declared today, "I personally believe that if we had a stronger transit component in the ballot measure, that would be appealing to voters.”

McGinn was referring to the need for rail between Ballard and downtown, which he has been pushing since his campaign in 2009. About half the car-tab proceeds would have gone to transit improvements, but those would have consisted of improvements to bus speed and reliability like bus bulbs and queue jump lanes, not new transit service hours.

McGinn is wrong that voters want to fund more capital investments in transit. Those who ride buses are keenly aware that what's needed now is not a shiny new streetcar line, but improvements to service that actually make the struggling system work. As anyone who's ridden the 44 from the U District to Ballard can tell you, allowing buses to jump ahead in line (instead of waiting endlessly in the righthand lane) would improve travel speeds for everyone. That should be the priority, not streetcars.

Additionally, voters disliked the fact that the car-tab fee, the only option legislators gave the city to pay for transportation enhancements, is regressive: A person who drives a clunker would have paid the same fee as someone who drives a luxury SUV.

Meanwhile, opponents of McGinn's transportation policy, like curmudgeon Joel Connelly, are saying the vote represents a rejection of frivolous expenditures on bikes and transit and "social engineering" by liberals who want to take away our God-given right to drive everywhere.

Trashing the fee because it prioritized transit speed improvements over road repairs and bridges (footnote: bridges are fantastically expensive to fix; repairing the Magnolia Bridge alone would cost more than the entire car-tab fee would have raised over 10 years, which is one reason bridge repairs are largely federally funded), Connelly called it "the brainchild of an insular echo chamber of liberal authoritarians in the Emerald City who purport to do what they judge is best for all of us"---meaning the mayor and the Sierra Club.[pullquote]Is Connelly really arguing that Kate Joncas of the Downtown Seattle Association, Estela Ortega of El Centro de la Raza, Keith Weir of the Building and Construction Trades Council, John Littel of the carpenters' union, Columbia City developer Rob Mohn, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Children's Hospital, and Lynn Tangen of Vulcan, are part of a liberal/enviromentalist "echo chamber" consisting of "a select few"?[/pullquote]

Voters rejected the fee because they resent McGinn. The campaign failed to do a good enough job dissociating themselves from the unpopular mayor, and the result was that many voters believed the measure was more bike-centric (in fact, it included just 6.8 percent percent for bikes) and less car-unfriendly (half the money would have gone directly to street repairs, and bike safety and transit speed improvements benefit drivers, too) than it actually was.

And although Connelly mentions the regressivity argument (as well as the "not enough money for bridges" argument, debunked above), his main point is that Seattle voters don't want those liberal social engineers telling us what to do. Which would all be well and good, except that the car-tab measure was actually the "brainchild" of a city council-appointed committee consisting of trade union members, business representatives, public health advocates, and social-justice lefties, along with the environmentalists Connelly vilifies.

(He even goes so far as to suggest the Sierra Club should get back to promoting conservation---ignoring the fact that the environmental movement hasn't been about conservation for decades, ever since global warming became a major concern in the 1990s).

Is Connelly really arguing that Kate Joncas, of the Downtown Seattle Association, Estela Ortega, of El Centro de la Raza, Keith Weir, of the Building and Construction Trades Council, John Littel of the carpenters' union, Columbia City developer Rob Mohn, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Children's Hospital, and Lynn Tangen of Vulcan, are part of a liberal/enviromentalist "echo chamber" consisting of "a select few"? Or that those groups are somehow in cahoots with "Mayor McGinn, Councilman Mike O'Brien, the Sierra Club-Cascade Chapter, Cascade Bicycle Club, Transportation Choices Coalition, and an insufferable, self-important local political web site"?

Additionally, it's pretty ludicrous to claim, as Connelly does, that tolls are a great way of funding transportation while simultaneously trashing car-tab fees as social engineering. The truth is that both are social engineering---much like highway spending, they encourage certain ways of getting around while discouraging others. Social engineering is inevitable in any society but an anarchy; the question is, what kind do we want? Connelly likes tolls; I, personally, like both tolls and car-tab fees. Apparently, that makes me (and anyone who supported Proposition 1, including the list of business, social justice, and labor leaders above) a "liberal authoritarian."
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