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Originally published December 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 7, 2008 at 3:01 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Impose license fee on King County cyclists

With governments at all levels hurting for revenues but faced with huge infrastructure bills, Times columnist James F. Vesely argues it's time to impose a license fee for bicycles. Cyclists have benefitted richly from projects that have blazed trails throughout the Puget Sound but have not had to pony up themselves.

Times editorial page editor

Local government finances are so dire, it is time to consider — and enact — an annual fee on bicyclists.

A $25 annual fee for owning a bike is a natural outgrowth of the enormous amounts of trails, lanes and accommodations the region has made to cyclists. Those funds would be useful for local cities and King County. It would also make cyclists true members of the world of transportation, rather than free riders on the tax rolls.

Special licenses are not new. We license dogs, our cars, our boats, our motorcycles, our pleasures in hunting and fishing, as well as many other outdoor activities. Cyclists, known for their community spirit and exalted senses of self, should welcome this opportunity to help government support their activities.

A simple exploration of current and future bike trails shows a remarkable generosity on the part of Puget Sound taxpayers. Whenever new transportation projects are studied, bike lanes are as automatic as white striping.

In 2012, for example, cyclists and pedestrians will have trails 14-feet wide in SoDo near the stadiums. Any Highway 520 floating bridge schematic includes a lane for cyclists. How about if they help pay their share? If Interstate 90 and Highway 520 bridges are tolled, it's only logical to expect cyclists to pay a modest toll, too, for access to a great path across the water and spectacular views.

Seattle went through a lengthy process of enhancing the Burke-Gilman Trail through industrial Ballard. Among the pretzel routes, all were made to make cycling as easy as possible. Those costs, born by the industries of Ballard and the city, could be offset by a modest fee.

Asked Friday if Seattle has any tax on cyclists, Mayor Greg Nickels admitted no, but said he thought there was a bicycle license fee in the 1940s, clearly a precedent.

On the Eastside, cyclist organizations were heavily involved in the creation of the Lake Sammamish Trail, a wonderful route between Redmond and Issaquah. But an annual fee would reduce the encumbrance on the body politic and direct fees toward the user group. That's the way bureaucrats talk when they propose things like another nickel on the gas tax.

Cyclists, the most green of our population, would embrace the annual fee schedule as a way of ensuring more proactive cycling activity before our various boards and commissions. I am sure the King County Council, beset by onerous tax shortfalls, would welcome this chance to bring cyclists to the fee-based premise of future county funding. Same thing for City Hall, where cyclists enjoy a strong representation, which has prompted the city to earmark millions of dollars for more bike lanes and paths. Twenty-five bucks a year for each cyclist is a bargain in exchange.

In the same sense, Critical Mass, the earnest congregation of cyclists who sometimes take over our streets, would be beneficial to law and order. A Critical Mass accumulation of cyclists would allow Seattle police to quickly spot those who have a bike license and those who do not, with appropriate fees and penalties.

King County already imposes a user fee on cyclists. It's illegal to ride a bike without a helmet — something dads and their children should remember as they take to the sidewalks on those first trips with Christmas bikes. Yet the contributions to the cycling community by the region greatly outweigh the return from those healthy bikers. Cycling organizations should be the first to recognize their members' use of urban and suburban pathways is also the pathway to street credentials with other members of the public.

Those organizations are powerful. Bicyclers across the region are known as accommodating and uncomplaining — as long as they get their way. Now is the time for them to show it by contributing to the public trough.

Will any of this happen? No, because from my perch, I don't know of a single, elected public official with the guts to propose a bike tax.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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