From the gas tax to the state license service fee—in one chart.
Everyone’s heard of the gas tax—and with Congress debating how to pay for a big highway bill, you’ll be hearing a lot more in the coming weeks—but it’s far from the only transportation fee that Americans pay on a regular basis. Others, such as local sales taxes and vehicle fees, tend to pile up for people living in a large metro area. Even if you cared to take a strict accounting of them all, you’d be hard-pressed to track down every last one.
Unless you live in Seattle, where Douglas MacDonald, who served as transportation secretary of Washington State from 2001 to 2007, has done the dirty work for you. As part of a public comment submitted to the Puget Sound Transportation Futures Task Force, MacDonald itemized every discrete transport-related fee paid for by the average Seattle household. His goal was to put all the funding streams “equally in plain view.”
All in all, by his calculations, there are 28 fees. CityLab gathered MacDonald’s list into a single table, below:
The 2014 column shows existing fees, which total $1,975 a year for the average household. (Again, these are averages; individual household payments will vary widely.) The 2016-2017 column shows what the fees will be when some new legislation kicks in (such as the Move Seattle plan that passed earlier this month), and assuming another measure set for next fall also gets approved. These amount to $2,762 a year, a 40 percent rise over current spending.
MacDonald’s aim in offering this “unprecedented” ledger is to shift the focus from agency coffers to citizen pockets. Here’s what he wrote to the task force (his emphasis):
This is different from the usual way of looking at the money. Not all the attention first on one agency, then another, each with “decision-makers” and “stakeholders” largely acting in silos to work out their agendas with your money. It sets aside the questions that too long have fragmented the transportation discussion, such as: what is the federal government doing with its transportation money, or the state government with its transportation money, or the city with its transportation money, or the county with its transportation money, or Sound Transit with its transportation money. The new question is: What are they all doing with your money.
Of course, Seattle households pay many other transportation expenses throughout the year, from basic fuel costs to car maintenance. To that end, MacDonald does point out another “hidden” tax charged against Seattleites in the form of poor roads that dish out damage to vehicles. The cost of shoddy streets is another $515 to $882 a year by his estimate.
When broken down by type, the revenue streams also highlight an equity concern that plagues local transportation funding. By MacDonald’s count, half of the existing fees consist of sales taxes—regressive funding sources that hit low-income households harder than high-income ones. User fees, meanwhile, only account for 27 percent of the existing fees. (MacDonald considers the gas tax a sales tax instead of a user fee, though it’s arguably a bit of both.)
MacDonald tells CityLab via email that he hopes the list will help the public hold their elected officials more accountable, and perhaps encourage more coordination between transportation agencies that currently operate as funding silos. “My only idea is that if you get people the information and put the problem squarely, people themselves get the message to decision-making officials,” he says. “That’s how it is supposed to work.”