Tax Us, Please?

I talk to a lot of state legislators. At least among majority Republicans, a question I often get is something along the lines of, “why don’t cyclists want to pay for their own bike lanes?”

In fact, a couple of years ago one very powerful legislator, Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, went so far as to float a budget amendment that would have imposed a $25 “registration fee” on every new adult-sized bike purchase in the state. It wasn’t really a registration fee but a special sales tax at point of purchase. We fought that and won, but Nygren is still there and so is the notion that we don’t want to pay our way.

My standard response is to argue that most cyclists are also drivers, so we do pay gas taxes and vehicle registration fees that go to fund roads, including bike lanes, paved shoulders and the like. When we ride state trails – and some local ones – we pay for trail passes. And then there’s the savings in wear and tear on the roads, the lessened need for expensive car parking, the reduction in pollutants and green house gas emissions and the personal health benefits that end up saving everybody money in the long run.

But halfway through that litany I see eyes glaze over. “Yes, but how come you guys don’t want to pay your own way?” It’s intellectual Teflon we’re fighting here, people.

So, I’ve been searching for a way to break through all this with the idea that if we can just get beyond the notion that cyclists aren’t willing to pony up for their own infrastructure we might be able to advance a broader pro-biking agenda.

One idea was voluntary state bike registration. Mirroring an existing Wisconsin program that allows owners of canoes and kayaks to voluntarily register their boats, the thought was that cyclists would want to register their bikes because it would put them in a statewide database. The benefit would be that when a stolen bike was recovered anywhere in the state it would be easily returned to its rightful owner. And, better yet, the revenues beyond the small amount needed to maintain the database could go right back into local bike lanes and other cycling safety projects.

If the participation rate was similar to that of the voluntary canoe and kayak program it might net well over a million dollars a year that could get plowed back into local bike programs.

I liked the idea as did the Bike Fed’s Public Policy Committee. But the bike industry would have opposed it and without their support it would have no chance of passage. Idea dropped.

But, folks, there’s more where that came from. So, here’s another bright idea: expanded use of current local registration fee revenues.

Current law allows local governments to charge a bike registration fee. Many municipalities do exactly that, but state law is hazy at best about what those fees can be used for. The language of the law and court rulings suggest that use of the fee revenues has to be closely tied to the registration program itself.

So, what if we just made it clear that bike registration fees could go for any cycling safety program, including infrastructure?

These are fees that some of us are already paying. It’s not granting any new authority to require registration. But it might have the effect of getting more cyclists to register their bikes because they know that the revenues are going into projects they directly benefit from. And current bike registration rates are pathetic. For example, only about 3,500 bikes are registered each year in Madison in a city of 230,000 people.

We are considering putting this proposal on our Lobby Day agenda, which is scheduled for April 13th. Before we do that we want to hear from you.

What do you think?

About Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

29 thoughts on “Tax Us, Please?

  1. One comment; one question.

    Comment: I have lots of bikes, as do many riders, for use in different types of riding. Not keen on a registration fee for each and every one (and yes, there is more than one road bike!).

    Question: If collected locally, can I presume that the funds are to be spent locally – and how do we assure they’re spent on improvements rather than “salaries/fringe” which is often the biggest expense of most things and not really all that “directly” helpful to a rider (in many instances).

    • Yes, local bike registration revenues are already spent only in the municipality in which they are collected. Nothing changes there.
      There’s nothing to prevent current fees (or your property taxes) from being spent on paying for people who actually do the work. So, for example, Madison and Milwaukee have bike/ped coordinators who are paid for mostly from general funds (property taxes).

  2. How about you say this next time Nygren or anyone else asks why bicyclists don’t want to pay their own way:

    “We do want to pay our own way. Most bike facilities are paid for by local property taxes, which we all pay. Many people who love to bike live in cities that support biking exactly because our local communities chose to use local revenues for things like bike facilities. And some of us would like to be able to raise more local revenues to pay for the things we want. How about letting us make the decision how we want to tax ourselves, including raising property taxes, local sales taxes, regional transit authorities, and even letting us use registration fees of bikes for any bike-related program?”

    • This is rational. My point is that rational argument is not working to change the perception. Politics, as you know Robbie, is as much about perceptions as facts.

      • That is nonsense. If rational facts aren’t working then you are taking to idiots who should be fired. Please don’t ever forget that.

        • Would that it were so. Unfortunately, law-making has never been entirely about facts and rational argument and it is less so today than it has been. You only need to look at the debate on climate change to see how facts run into beliefs and contrary interests. I agree that legislators should always be persuaded entirely by good arguments. But they’re not and they have never been. We have to deal with the situation as it is, not as we want it to be.

          • Thanks for your perspective, but I honestly couldn’t disagree more. It is a very slippery slope when one gives up on the power of facts and logic. I wish you the best of luck in advocating on our behalf, but if it were up to me, I’d have you use a very different approach. We will have to agree to disagree.

          • I’m with Josh and Robbie. Bikers already “pay their way”. When we bike instead of drive we are actually saving WI money; maybe we should ask for a rebate.

  3. Would there be a risk that once we start publicizing our willingness to pay a fee that the State/counties/cities will then limit any bike infrastructure improvements to those that can be financed by these fees? Basically wash their hands of needing to do anything for bikes unless it was already completely funded? I find it hard to believe the revenue generated by even widely supported fees would be enough to cover that. I don’t know that it would happen, just throwing it out there.

  4. You have put your finger on the biggest risk with this idea. But my sense of it is that places that are already investing in bike infrastructure are doing so because it is politically viable. They’re very unlikely to cut back. If anything, this gives them the political cover to do more. Where this might do the most good is in communities that are doing nothing right now. In those places a little might go a long way to get them started and prime the pump. But, of course, no one can be sure. I’d be less than honest if I suggested that there is no risk of what you fear.

  5. Could you clarify the “bike industry” opposition to the voluntary registration idea that was dropped? I can’t understand why they’d oppose that external and voluntary program over something like the point-of-sale tax since the latter would raise prices. Did the “canoe and kayak” industry raise similar opposition?

    • I was wondering the same thing when I read that part of the post. Would be very interested to hear their insight on this.

      • I think the primary concern I heard was that a voluntary program could be a first step toward a mandatory one.

  6. Will they also require a $25 tax per pair of shoes to pay for sidwalks, crosswalk paint, and the little walker symbol that sometimes lights up when you push the button at an intersection? They should also tax baby strollers and sidewalk chalk. Possibly someone could work out the TRUE cost of motor vehicle use in terms not only of funds spent on roadways and other infrastructure (our city’s property tax payers are spending tens of millions on parking ramps for people who don’t live in our city, for example) but also the costs of health care for people injured in crashes and forced to breathe polluted air, the cost of oil wars and caring for oil war veterans, the cost of police departments, jails, and courts to deal with criminal drivers, the cost to communities of giving over so much property to motor vehicle space (who among us does not live in a virtual cage outlined by car routes), and the cost to our environment of continuing to prefer cars over bikes (or walking or public transportation)? If that formula could be worked out fairly, not only would car drivers need to pay exponentially more, but bicyclists would get rebates for choosing a healthier, resource and earth friendly transportation method. Or maybe this – use non-specific taxes like income and property to pay for non specific transportation costs ( divide it equally among transportation modes) and let specific modes’ fees and taxes pay for soecific modes’ infrastructure. Of course that will never fly because every tax payer, whether or not we drive a car, is subsidizing car culture. We need the true costs in a chart to push back against the myth that car drivers pay their own way. That’s also what is needed for lobbying. I’ll pay into a protected bike lane fund, but that should be a preferred and top ranked project for general funds given the positive impact a statewide network of PBLs could have on health, safety, and environment. But doubtless that money would end up being spent on a couple of highly designed and expensive limited and useless projects in Milwaukee or Madison that go from one tourist spot to anotherand then end abruptly at a curb.

  7. Dave, First off thank you for all you do for the biking community!

    I hate that we even need to discuss revenue sources to simply allow for safe biking, however
    since that is not that point of this discussion…

    IF we could guarantee that 100% of a point of sales fee/tax would go to pro bike projects than what would be the reasoning behind rejecting the idea? It would be a fairly predictable income and would put everyone on a level playing field and as you said in your previous reply “prime the pump”
    Consumers are already use to sales taxes so I don’t see it being a huge put-off to purchase.

    I just don’t see how we ever get to the point of where a majority of “people who ride bikes” (which is different than true “Bikers”) to buy in and support any type of voluntary or even mandated POST sale
    registration. Is little Johhny with his training wheels going to fork over $xx a year? The student riding to class? The mom who’s just trying to stay in shape using her trainer? etc. etc.
    Yes there are serious riders who want to support biking related activities but The casual rider doesn’t want to have to worry about figuring out a registration process. Biking is about freedom from all of that. If the fee is paid up front then it is out of sight out of mind and simply gets done.

  8. I suppose if you want to have a “voluntary” program – go for it. I trust the government to be a good steward of ANY tax dollars about as much as I trust my dog not to lick himself and so I would never pay a voluntary fee or tax for any purpose.

  9. Alright, some back of the envelope calculations. I am going to go with a very optimistic scenario.

    5,778,708 population of Wisconsin
    5,778,708 Number of bicycles, assuming that Wisconites have 3 times the ownership rate of the national average

    Let’s figure out how many of those bikes are going to be registered. As Dave writes,

    1.5% Percentage of bikes currently registered in Madison

    Because Madison is full of communists and everybody will love the proposed $25 dollar registration, we’ll assume the registration rate will quintuple.

    7.5% Percentage of bikes that will be registered

    Leading to a total of
    439684 Number of bicycles that will be registered

    $25 Gross revenue per registered bike

    Of course, somebody needs to administer the registration, which creates overhead. Again, let’s be optimistic and say:

    5% Administrative overhead
    $23.75 Net revenue per registered bike
    $10,442,502 Total net revenue

    $445000 Cost of 1 mile of protected bike lane
    23 Miles of protected bike lanes that could be funded per year

    Pretty nice. But of course, my assumptions are wildly optimistic. Under a still optimistic but slightly more realistic scenario where the percentage of people registering their bikes will be the same as it is right now in Madison and the administrative overhead will be 25%, you’ll end up with a net revenue of $1.6 million or 4 miles of protected bike lane.

    I truly don’t understand why the Bike Fed is pushing for this.

    • The total amount of Transportation Alternatives Program funding for the state last year was $15 million. So, $10 million would be a two-thirds increase while $1.5 million would be a ten percent increase. More to the point, as I said in the blog, there is lots of symbolic value in the bike community taking this posture.

  10. Unfortunately, it may come down to mandatory bicycle registration fees and replacing fuel taxes with a transportation sales tax in order to convince the people who say that bicyclists do not pay their own way to change their minds. I would love to see a statewide voter referendum on this but I don’t think Wisconsin law permits it.

    • The long-term funding solution on transportation is probably a vehicle miles travelled tax, so that everyone would pay based on the number of miles they drive. That might have the impact you suggest as drivers would become very aware of how many miles they drive every year and what it costs.

  11. Thanks for your work on this issue Dave and keep up the good fight!

    As bicycle advocates and action takers continue to navigate this topic, I’m wondering if you can assist with my confusion… I’m Vice-Chair of the Stevens Point Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee and we recently reviewed this topic of bicycle licensing (in Stevens Point). Our City does issue bicycle licenses for $6 (non-terminating) per bike, but it’s rarely enforced. Our numbers of issuance have dropped greatly since 10-20 years ago… We’re a Bronze BFC and received the LAB’s BFC feedback report at the beginning of this year.

    Under the “Enforcement” recs. it states, “Repeal your local law that requires bicycle registration or bicycle licensing. In the vast majority of places where mandatory bike registration has been enacted it has had no discernible safety effect and did not generate revenue. However, mandatory bicycle registration laws have been used as a basis for discriminatory pretextual traffic stops. If bicycle theft or bad bicyclist behavior are issues in your community there are many other ways to address those issues without requiring all bicycles to be registered or licensed.”

    After reading your blog post I’m now more confused than ever…

    Can you please clarify if the WI Bike Fed has seen this recommendation before, if this is new, and/or if there is disagreement between the WI Bike Fed and the LAB on this issue?

    Thanks for your time,
    Trevor

    • I have not seen that recommendation before, though I did find similar comments in my research on the issue. And it is true that registration is generally not enforced by local officials or well-followed by cyclists. But it’s possible that if cyclists knew that their fees were going to support their own programs and infrastructure compliance might increase.

  12. There is good reason this suggestion has not been made before. There is good reason the cycling industry opposed other taxes. They are fighting for their self-interest and the interests of cyclists. Two ideas that make sense from this forum: 1) Taxing shoes 2) A rebate. They contradict each other, but at least either one can be seen as pro-cycling.
    Others not making sense is not a reason to make no sense yourself. You don’t fight fire by pouring gasoline on yourself.

  13. I would love to see fines and spot-check of bike registration compliance, with fines used to augment state, federal and local gov. funding for infrastructure. That said, I would gladly contribute to an additional voluntary fund, either at a state or city level. And I am on disability, so limited income and cannot ride as much as I used to.

  14. I think cyclists can pay their way when auto drivers start paying theirs.
    But, but, gas taxes!
    Laughing… You don’t actually believe gas taxes are high enough to pay for all the roads do you? Not even close.
    Well, I do pay them.
    Me too.

  15. Local streets are not paid by gas taxes or car registration, only state roads use that money. Local streets are paid by property taxes. Look it up.

    So yeah, I pay my way already

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