The Bus Stops Here: For A Mixed View of the Vehicle Registration Fee

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In the long run, what we are doing here is fighting to reduce traffic congestion

Mayor Rhodes-Conway at the Oct. 29 Special Session devoted to the Vehicle Registration Fee proposal

Cottage Grove Road ... will be ... expanded from a two-lane road to a four-lane boulevard

... City funds will total $1,990,000 and County funds total $1,210,000. 

- Oct. 29, 2019 News Release of City of Madison

Maybe there is a long-term strategy to this madness that is difficult to see unless one is a master at chess and can see ahead. But it seems reasonable to ask how expanding a stretch of county road to/from the city of Madison from two to four lanes is "fighting to reduce traffic congestion" rather than just encouraging more car driving, congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions. Or to wonder about the progressive nature of committing almost $2 million of city money for work on a county road at the same time as seeking millions in revenue from Madison car owners through an admittedly regressive fee.

In a highly contested 11-8 vote in a special session on October 29, 2019, the Madison Common Council voted to adopt a $40 Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) on the cars of city residents. The State's base fee had just been boosted to $85 earlier this year. And after years of wrangling, Dane County had also just recently passed an additional VRF of $28 (last Fall). Combined, most passenger motor vehicles weighing up to 8,000 pounds in Madison will be assessed a fee of $153 as of February 1, 2020 compared to $75 a little over a year ago. Hybrids are also now charged an additional $75 annual fuel surcharge by the state and fully electric vehicles an additional $100 surcharge, supposedly to make up for lower gas tax payments.

In general, given the slanted playing field in which car use is unfairly favored and subsidized over other forms of transportation in Madison and the state, bus advocates should be jumping for joy over the vote, even those who also own cars. Not just because using a car has become slightly more aligned with its true cost, but because much of the additional revenue from Madison's VRF will go toward maintaining and improving transit. As the city's information sheet on the proposed Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) says so succinctly: we cannot afford to not make these investments.  

And in isolation, we should be jumping for joy. But when we look at a larger picture that includes the county's non-contribution to public transit even while half its Fee revenue comes from Madison residents, or a larger view that should include road diets rather than road expansions, there is less cause for celebration. Unless, as in a chess game, we are missing a longer-term strategy that involves short-term retreat. Are we? Or are we just further enabling car use and urban sprawl at the expense of Madison fee payers and public safety, and to the glee of County Executive Joe Parisi?

As was the case last year when then-Mayor Paul Soglin proposed a more modest $17 Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) to a plug a hole in the budge, there was grumbling among some opponents who thought  that we 'should live within our means.' Opposition to a city VRF also came from alders who felt that the fee was regressive, that all cars would be charged the same amount no matter whether they were clunkers or luxury cars. 

Additionally, the fee would only punish people further who were already being forced to buy a car to get to and from work, school or medical appointments because there really was no alternative. Madison's zoning and poor land use planning has resulted in even so-called "affordable housing" approved by the Plan Commission to be located where residents cannot safely and reasonably walk, bike or ride transit to their destination in the city. This dysfunctional car-centric "planning" continues to this day.

Finally, some people felt that a fee that was supposed to be exclusively for transportation purposes was being used in actuality to only pay for non-transportation costs. If approved, fee revenue would be used to help pay Metro's budgeted allotment, freeing up that amount to then pay for other city services. There would be no net increase to the money spent on transit.

Given this past attempt, it was no surprise that the current mayor would also propose that a Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) br part of her budget. Adding a VRF had also become a fairly common way for local governments throughout the state to circumvent unreasonably low state-imposed caps on their use of the property tax. Unexpectedly however, and with a stroke of strategic genius, rather than trying to reduce the VRF to make it more palatable to the opposition, the Mayor more than doubled it in order to be able to actually invest in an improved public transportation system. In the long-run, such investment would bring down the transportation costs of Madison residents but meant enacting a regressive fee in the short-run.

Thus, instead of a proposed $17 that would be used entirely to cover standard city expenses, the Mayor proposed a Vehicle Registration Fee of $40 in her 2020 Operating Budget introduced on October 1, 2019. She also made the continued fiscal support of certain critical police, fire, public health, planning and flood prevention services contingent on the existence of the fee. And rather than making the fee temporary, she wanted its ending left open.

Yes, the new Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) is still opposed by many alders. But it passed. How the revenue is actually spent has not yet been set in stone as of this writing. As expected, some feel that basic city services are being shortchanged for investments in public transportation that we cannot afford and are suggesting shifting more of the money from transportation over to police or fire protection. 

Some are also still concerned about the regressive and punishing nature of the Fee although there is been no demand that any new 'affordable' housing development be located within truly reasonable access to transit facilities. Rather, since the law forbade the city from waiving the fee for anyone, the city's Finance Committee tried to soften the regressive blow by providing $40 gift cards to households eligible for WIC, the special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children. Better than nothing, that could not target many who might otherwise have been eligible for a waiver and also risked offending people who do not want a government 'handout.'

In contrast to its admittedly negative qualities, the 2020 Vehicle Registration Fee (VRF) is designed to actually help finance improvements to local public transportation. How can any bus advocate be anything but delighted? Because the larger picture is not so rosy.

The larger picture is that a Vehicle Registration Fee has been enacted at a time when Madison also made a massive financial giveaway to the County. Madisonians often seem to forget that they now comprise less than half the whole urbanized area of Dane County. They seem unaware that half the employees of their city government are not Madison residents, taxpayers, or payers of its new Vehicle Registration Fee. That there does not yet appear to be a coherent policy on the role of the older central city in the transportation system of the larger area is a cause for concern, not celebration.

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