A couple of weeks ago Mayor McGinn called a press conference to highlight the troubled state of the City of Seattle’s budget. I couldn’t help but notice one number that came up in his presentation on slide number 17. Because of falling gas tax revenues the City’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) is facing “a potential gap of between $4 (million) and $6 million in 2010.” That number sounded really familiar.
Then it hit me. The so called “Head Tax” that the Seattle City Council repealed last year totaled about $4.5 million in revenue annually. You read that right, the Seattle City Council gave up a $4.5 million revenue source for transportation infrastructure during the worst economic downturn in at least the last 30 years. And how big is the shortfall in the SDOT budget?
I wrote on Sightline’s Daily Score several weeks ago about what I called the Sustainability Gap, which I define as the distance between what elected officials say about sustainability and what they actually do. The repeal of the so called “Head Tax” is perhaps the most striking example of how the gap works.
The tax cost businesses that earned above $80,000 an average of $92 per year but generated enough funding to pay for significant pedestrian and bicycle improvements like the one on Olive Way on Capitol Hill. The Olive Way crosswalk is a pretty simple and unglamorous project but important to pedestrians, favoring them over people who choose to drive their cars. These are also construction projects that would create real jobs in the construction trades. On the other hand a lot of local businesses now have an extra $92 annually thanks to the Council’s decision. Maybe those businesses can use their windfall to buy a new letter opener.
Meanwhile, the Council announced they were the “get it done gang,” promising to build a waterfront tunnel to the tune of $4.5 billion before overruns. At the same time the gang also included proposal to put the city on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020 or some other date in the future. Trying to achieve carbon neutrality while building highways (our biggest source of CO2 emissions) that encourage more driving is, to paraphrase Einstein, like preparing simultaneously for war and peace.
The Council punched a hole in the SDOT budget when they approved a tax give back to business that generates no community benefit but ends neighborhood pedestrian and bike projects while supporting a multibillion dollar, traffic generating tunnel. But they also want to Seattle to be carbon neutral. That’s the Sustainability Gap. But how do you measure something like the Sustainability Gap? How big is it? In Seattle I’d say it’s about $4.5 million give or take a few billion.