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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Revenge of the Car

Air Date: Week of

Tom Banse (BAHN-see) reports on the pitched battle over automobile taxes and public transportation funding in Washington state. Seattle's bus and ferry system is one of the most heavily-used public transit operations in the U.S., but one voter initiative has already slashed transit funding, and another would require that ninety percent of all transportation funding be spent on roads.


CURWOOD: Ridership on public transportation in the U.S. is the highest it's been in decades. But in many places, mass transit is under fire from taxpayers and car owners, who want government planners to do more for the larger number of people who commute by automobile. As Tom Banse reports from Seattle, something of a car owner's revolt seems to be brewing in the state of Washington.


BANSE: It's rush hour in Seattle, and the city is living up to its dubious honor as third most congested in the nation. Bus stops downtown are swarming with riders. Many are angry about recent cutbacks in service.

WOMAN: You know, the biggest problem I think that Seattle has is just getting people around town and cutting back on mass transit certainly isn't helping any.

WOMAN 2: You get on and they're crowded. You have to stand, and we took a bus the other day that actually passed several stops because they were too full.

BANSE: The Seattle area has enjoyed some of the best bus service in the country, twice voted tops by the American Public Transit Association. And the fleet of commuter ferry boats here is the largest in the U.S.

(Boat horns)

BANSE: But the system is in the midst of drastic budget cuts brought on by a citizen tax revolt. Seattle's looking at scaling back bus service by one third. Some suburbs have stopped weekend service altogether, including van pickups for the disabled. One quarter of the ferry fleet could wind up in mothballs. Many riders see the cuts as short-sighted.

WOMAN 3: I think if you cut back on bus transportation, people will get in their cars, and everybody will have more congestion, and our air pollution will go up.

MAN: I think that, you know, we're in just this kind of mean-spirited times right now, where people don't give a rat's ass about anything except their own money in their pocket.

BANSE: Passenger fares cover less than 25 percent of the budget for Seattle's buses. Here, as elsewhere, transit receives massive taxpayer subsidies. Angry voters recently knocked out one source of that subsidy. A suburban mail-order entrepreneur, Tim Eyman, drafted a ballot proposition to whack Washington state's rather steep car license tax. It passed handily in November. This year, Mr. Eyman's back for more.

EYMAN: We're filing today the Traffic Improvement Initiative, which does, one, mandates that 90 percent of all transportation monies goes to road construction, road improvements...

BANSE: The new ballot proposition would open freeway carpool lanes to all drivers. It would also require government officials to spend nine tenths of every transportation dollar on road construction and maintenance.

EYMAN: They can spend the other 10 percent of the money any way they want. They can use it for mass transit. They can use it for rail. They can use it for any of their various programs of social engineering, where they want to force people out of their vehicles. Knock yourself out. But when 90 percent of the people are just trying to get from Point A to Point B, 90 percent of the money ought to be spent on that.

BANSE: Mr. Eyman is backed by a network of anti-tax activists he calls his kamikazes. They hope to tap into a vein of frustration with traffic, congestion so bad that it's not unusual for the radio traffic alerts to go on and on.

(Radio voice: "Southbound 95 is still slowing at Linwood off and on through Shoreline due to some earlier problems that are cleared. Southbound 405 still pretty solid. That's the Slumfrieg Interchange...")

BANSE: Urban planners view mass transit as the answer to congestion, but many taxpayers feel transit systems are riven with waste and consider new commuter rail lines a boondoggle. Enough people feel this way that they are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Retired liquor store owner Bob Burmeister is one of those helping distribute the petitions needed to get the road-building proposition on the Washington state ballot.

BURMEISTER: I just see what's not working, and what hasn't been working, and that's the empty buses running around all hours of the day and night. Just can't quite fathom how they justify running all these empty buses, but I'm sure they have adequate tax dollars to squander on that, too.

BANSE: Is Mr. Burmeister in the vanguard of a new movement? Is this the revenge of the car owners? National experts say the situation in Seattle is more extreme than elsewhere because it combines three movements at once. There's anti-tax activists mixed in with critics of light rail, plus you have people who covet the carpool lanes. Mark Hallenbeck is a transportation expert at the University of Washington.

HALLENBECK: It's not necessarily an anti-transit backlash. I think it's a "me first" attitude.

BANSE: Mr. Hallenbeck says congestion is getting worse just about everywhere, yet Americans show no sign of breaking their love affair with the car.

HALLENBECK: There are forces that say, "I want to drive my car when I want to drive my car whenever I want to drive my car," and we like to drive our cars. I like to drive my car. The problem is, it's almost impossible to find something that does work. So, people who haven't tried to come up with solutions that actually work tend to look for the next thing they can take.

MAN: Madame Speaker, a quorum is present.

(A gavel sounds)

MADAME SPEAKER: House will be in order. Members will take their seats, please...

BANSE: In Washington state, the legislature is on the spot to patch the holes from November's car tax cut and put out emerging brush fires. Republican Representative Maryann Mitchell states flatly the carpool lanes will stay, because they're working. But finding new ways to subsidize transit proves more perplexing.

MITCHELL: Our rural folks really are not interested in paying for transit, even though they have limited transit service. They don't think they ought to be paying for Seattle's transit system.

BANSE: In the future, Representative Mitchell says towns and cities that want good bus service will have to raise the money locally. Washington state is also looking at raising fares on ferries and even privatizing parts of the system to make ends meet.

(A crowd chants: "Save our ferries. Keep the promise! Save our ferries. Keep the promise! Save our ferries. Keep the promise! ... ")

BANSE: Puget Sound bus and ferry riders are keeping the pressure on to save what they have. At one of the frequent rallies held at the state capital, businessman Mike Stohmeyer from the San Juan islands said higher ferry fares and reduced service could spell trouble for his beach resort.

STOHMEYER: Now we're talking about cutbacks during the most prosperous time Washington state has ever had, and it's a ridiculous situation.

CROWD: "Save our ferries! Save our ferries!"

BANSE: Around the country voters are sending mixed signals about what they want. In November, Colorado and New Jersey approved massive borrowing for a combination of highways and transit. But people in Kansas City, Virginia Beach, and Columbus, Ohio, rejected tax increases to build light rail lines. President Clinton's new budget calls for record spending on transportation, but most of the new money goes to construction of road and rail projects and to research. It would not provide new operating subsidies to replace money lost through tax revolts. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse in Seattle.



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