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Originally published May 17, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified May 19, 2014 at 12:28 PM

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One Seattle tax solution: impact fees | Danny Westneat

Readers say they want more than just whining about our tax problems in Seattle. So here’s one possible solution, from an unlikely place.


Seattle Times staff columnist

Reader Comments
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Why is it that fare increases are not on the table? MORE
So why can't those rich Amazon workers pony up another 50 cents a ride to keep the number 8 bus running? MORE
@citizen cane Seattle has both a taxing and spending problem. Seattle is a totally mismanaged city. MORE

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I’ve been moaning enough lately about the tax jag Seattle politicians are on that a number of readers are calling me on it.

“Danny, you are skilled at bashing the solutions brought forth by others, I’ll give you that,” one wrote last week after I suggested our leaders were becoming a Seattle version of the Soup Nazi (“Pass these taxes, Seattle, or no yoga for you!”)

“So your solution is ... what, exactly? Just don’t pay for things like transit or parks?”

Wrote another: “Spare us the Fox News whining about taxes. News flash: Stuff costs money. How would you do it better?”

I admit, I’m not much of a solutions guy. Going all the way back to second grade when I quit the Cub Scouts (too authoritarian), my instinct has been more to poke holes than patch up. That’s why I became a newspaper columnist!

But I’ll give it a try. Here’s my contribution to help solve what ails Seattle right now (namely, that we have so many infrastructure needs and not enough money to pay for it all.)

Growth and development impact fees.

It’s hardly a new idea, but it reoccurred to me the other day when my bus ride to work reached comical levels of overcrowding. There were so many riders crammed in the aisles of the Metro bus No. 8 that the driver began quizzing us whether we’d showered that morning. Because she needed us to press up against one another like in a Japanese subway car.

As I was getting intimate with my co-passengers, I realized most of them were wearing blue badges. Signifying they work at Amazon.

That company has been a huge boon to Seattle, in jobs for one. But as with any growth explosion, there have been costs. Why hasn’t Seattle asked the company to pay more of them?

Example: Metro is planning on cutting back the No. 8 — a bus that serves the heart of Amazonia. Last week Mayor Ed Murray proposed that to save this bus route and others, it’s the citizens who need to pay up, in higher car tab fees and sales taxes.

I don’t mean to single out Amazon. The company is paying for some streetcar service and bike lanes and the like around its developments. Seattle frequently negotiates improvements like this in a scattershot way, but the city has never systematically tried to make growth pay for itself.

You know who has? Bellevue.

Last week I wondered in a column why Seattle is lurching from crisis to crisis, rolling out tax levies for transit, roads and parks. While Bellevue seems to function fine without having raised taxes in years. How does Bellevue do it? The answer, in part, is that they charge development, not the taxpayers.

Bellevue was the first city in the state to impose impact fees and now dozens do. In 1990, overwhelmed by new construction, Bellevue decided to make new growth help pay for traffic congestion. So today, if you build a house, you pay up to $2,600. An apartment building costs you $1,300 per unit. For office buildings it’s $5 to $10 a square foot.

The city has $200 million worth of road work projects in the pipeline due to this fund.

Why can’t Seattle do this? By state law impact fees can’t be used directly for transit, but we could use them for roadwork, bike lanes, parks or schools. That could free up money from those areas that could be spent on transit.

For all the self-promotion in Seattle about social justice and progressivism, the reality is we keep jacking up the same taxes that we admit stick it to the poor. Meanwhile it is corporate Bellevue that found a fairer method, charging what amounts to a tax on capital investment on the same projects that are stressing the infrastructure.

So which really is the more progressive city — the one that’s always talking about it, or the other one?

See, even when offering up a solution, I couldn’t help taking a little potshot. It’s why I’m a newspaper columnist.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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