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Originally published Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 3:48 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Now is not right time to ask Seattle voters to fund bicycle improvements

The Seattle City Council ponders creation of a transportation taxing district, to be followed by a request to voters for a bevy of new taxes for transportation. Presumably, a lot of money would go to bike and pedestrian improvements. Is this really the most pressing need at this time?

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Over the years, Seattle has acquired a variety of nicknames. Queen City. Rain City. Jet City. And if Mayor Mike McGinn gets his way, Seattle also will be known as the Motor-less City.

Or something like that.

The bicycle lobby helped elect the mayor and now it wants significant bike striping all over town in return.

The question of whether this group of citizens can impose their will on the rest of the place will be answered in the next year or so.

The City Council is pondering creation of a transportation taxing district. After a fair amount of Seattle process, the city would ask that reliable and generous Seattle ATM, the taxpayers, to pay higher property or sales taxes or increased vehicle licensing fees to produce millions of dollars a year for bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

The council can create the taxing district with a simple council vote — and its creation enables the collecting of new taxes. Then, as soon as next summer or fall, bike and pedestrian groups would be expected to help sell the plan to voters, who must approve most of the taxes.

At the depth of a stubborn recession, with pressing civic needs ranging from education to public safety, is this really the top priority? Or do these powerful interest groups merely have the city's ear?

As an avid runner, and occasional biker, I bear no deep-seated opposition to more recreational or commuter space for each and every group. At least theoretically. As a taxpayer, I say hold your spandex bike tights on a minute.

In 2011 Seattle's Families and Education Levy that supports public-school students comes up for renewal. McGinn flirts with the idea of more public investment in light rail in several locations. And this fall, the big thinkers at King County propose a sales tax increase for public safety. The Legislature patched its leaky budget with a slew of taxes on candy, bottled water, beer and soda pop.

Have a headache?

You will.

Seattle and King County are oh so adept at sending spending requests to the ballot but pathetic at deciding which money measures to move forward and which to put on hold until the ravaged economy improves.

If you pose the question to voters, do you prefer a sidewalk in a neighborhood or a police officer downtown, says one wise business leader, the choice just might be public safety.

But that's not how it works. Each item is put forward as the absolute most important thing for that moment. And why not? The generous voters of Seattle usually say yes

Keep in mind, the bike and pedestrian lobbies, whose efforts began before the arrival of McGinn, are already getting improvements that infuriate some motorists — oops, motorists, swear word, I know. Nickerson Street east-west between the Ballard and Fremont bridges is on a "road diet" that provides increased safety, more bicycle lanes and fewer car lanes.

Safety advocates also fought to change the configuration on Northeast 125th Street — again more bike space, fewer car lanes and enhanced safety.

Increasingly, cars are being shoved aside, as evidenced by efforts to jack up commercial parking rates, the constant plea for more light rail and significant transfer of asphalt to bike lanes.

Had Seattle elected leaders with a better business sense or a more rational view of the affordability or lack of it of living in the city, things might be different. But every new bike lane can make a road less appealing to a car or a truck. Bicycles prevail, freight mobility takes a sorry hike.

This is all more complicated than it sounds. A tax package might also include money for general road maintenance, transit, money to rebuild the sea wall and a host of other, perhaps worthy endeavors.

The issue is not the worthiness of any project but the ability to pay for it all. Seattle voters have to decide what kind of city they want: one with affordable taxes and reasonable accommodation for business and jobs, or a bike and pedestrian haven backed by plenty of public spending. And that means generous and frequent donations from Seattleites who may not spend umpteen hours a week on two wheels.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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