Obsessed as I've been over King County's proposed $20 "congestion reduction fee" and the 600,000 annual hours of Metro bus service it would preserve, I've been totally remiss in covering the $80 car tab fee an advisory committee has recommended that Seattle impose to improve car, bike, pedestrian, and transit mobility within the city. That's a potential $100 a year in additional car tab fees Seattle voters could be asked to approve this November, so in typical Goldy fashion, I'd like to kick off this discussion by talking about how these proposals could impact me.
Unlike most of my hippie colleagues here at The Stranger, I actually own and drive a (gasp) car. I could take transit to and from work, and I occasionally do, but due to parenting commitments and scheduling, it's just not convenient. Between commuting, leisure, errands, and carting my daughter around, I put about 7000 miles a year on my 2001 Nissan Altima, about half the mileage of the average American driver.
So what am I paying for the privilege of using our state's roads, highways and bridges? My current car tab fees break down as such:
In addition, I pay 55.9 cents in tax on each gallon of gasoline I buy (37.5 cents to the state and 18.4 cents to the feds). Last time I calculated, I was averaging about 24 miles per gallon, so... 7000 miles divided by 24 mpg, times 55.9 cents comes to $163.04 a year. Add in the tabs and I currently pay the guvmint $237.79 a year for the privilege of driving my car: roughly 3.4 cents per mile.
An extra 100 bucks—$20 to Metro, $80 to the city—would add an additional 1.4 cents a mile to my driving costs (twice the per mile rate of the average driver, because again, I drive half as much) raising my car's tax burden to $337.79, or 4.8 cents a mile. In other words, every single time I drive the six miles to work, it would cost me 28.8 cents in federal, state, and local taxes each way, compared to, say, the $2.50 one-way fare on Metro or the $1,080 annual cost of a monthly pass. Such a bargain!
I dive into these numbers in such detail because, before we discuss what the proposed $80 car tab fee would buy, I want readers to be absolutely clear on what it really costs. $80 may seem like a lot when we're asked to pay it all in one lump sum, compared to a sales tax that only hits us up for a few dollars or pennies at a time. But averaged out over the course of the 13,476 miles a year the average American drives, it would add little more to the cost of three, 30-mile round trips between Seattle and Redmond than the sales tax on a single $5-Footlong at Subway.
Which brings me to my new metric for visualizing the cost of car tab fees, the Footlong to Redmond Ratio—or "Footlongs" for short—representing the total cost a car tab fee adds to a oneway trip between Seattle and Redmond, expressed in terms of the sales tax on a Subway sandwich:
Footlongs = ((TabFee / MilesPerYear) * SeattleToRedmond) / ($5Footlong * SalesTax)
Given that the average American drives 13,476 miles per year, the driving distance between Seattle and Redmond is 15 miles, the sales tax in Seattle is 10 percent, and the cost of a $5-Footlong is indeed $5, every $20 in additional car tab fee equates to .045 Footlongs. In other words, the additional tax on a road trip to Redmond would be equivalent to the sales tax on a single bite of a $5 sandwich.
Okay, it's admittedly a silly metric, and perhaps not all that intuitive, but the point is, our car taxes are actually pretty damn affordable compared to the utility we get from the roads they pay for, while representing the smallest part of the cost of owning and operating a car. Would I like to pay an additional $20 or $80 or even $100 a year on tab fees? Of course not. Can I afford it? Sure. The question ultimately before voters is whether the Redmond is worth the Footlong.