Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said of left-wing economics, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

A Democratic proposal in the Washington state House for the creation of a $25 tax on some bicycle sales may be a sign that liberals here are close to proving true the Iron Lady’s humorous observation.

Part of the Democratic transportation proposal announced Wednesday would have bicyclists – long-treated as an untouchable class within the core Democratic power base in Seattle – paying a one-time fee on bikes costing $500 or more. The new tax would come alongside increases in annual car tab fees and a 10-cent hike over the next five years per gallon in the tax paid on gasoline.

Welcome to reality, cyclists. Shared roads require shared responsibility.

[pullquote align=”right”]…[A] one-time tax on bicycle sales is not a long-term answer for how to fully integrate bicyclists into the transportation system both logistically and economically, if that if really what we want to do.[/pullquote]But while the move to strip protected status from the heretofore pampered cycling community may signal a recognition by Democrats that taxing only non-liberal special interest groups will no longer support the state government’s spending habit, the proposed bike tax is little more than a symbolic offer and does not go far enough to address the many inequities that exist in our continuing experiment with shared roads.

A $1 million influx of cash over 10 years from the proposed bike sales tax is hardly a molecule within a drop of water in the overall bucket of the $10 billion transportation package it is a part of, one that completely ignores two massive elephants in the budget – multi-billion shortfalls in the Highway 520 bridge replacement and Highway 99 tunnel projects.

Most important, the proposal’s one-time tax on bicycle sales is not a long-term answer for how to fully integrate bicyclists into the transportation system both logistically and economically, if that if really what we want to do.

Each year, we commit more resources and road space to bicycle traffic and cyclist-friendly accommodations, and not only in urban settings like Seattle. The results are mixed, but it’s hard not to conclude that auto drivers are getting the short end of the transportation economy –increased congestion, extended commute times, elevated confusion about road rules – without any corresponding direct economic participation from cyclists.

Certainly, cyclists themselves have had to bear some heavy burdens in other ways. The frequency of serious and fatal accidents involving cyclists has increased in recent years, as would be expected when the number of bikes mingling among larger vehicles is dramatically increased. Nevertheless, the toll in blood only serves to underscore that there are issues with shared roadways that must be tackled with a comprehensive approach, and a one-time tax on bicycle sales does nothing to address the economic inequities or the inherent dangers of shared roads.

There are three good steps that could be taken toward legitimizing the cyclists’ role in the transportation system. (Again, if that is indeed what we want to do)

First, we should require road-using cyclists to pay annual license fees and hang a visible identifying plate from their bike. Car tab fees are a nominal user’s fee based on a principle of privilege and cyclists should pay some small fee for the privilege as well.

Second, roadborne cyclists should be tested on their knowledge of road rules and their ability to follow them on the road and required to carry proof of liability insurance. Cyclists will often argue that because of their relative size they do not cause accidents – this is a fallacy that attempts to whitewash real costs of shared roads. Competency licensing and accountability would not eliminate the inherent dangers of allowing bicycles to share the roads, but some of the resulting costs could be managed. Mostly, the more all users of the roads can be on the same page about the rules, the safer those roads will be.

Third, transportation experts and representatives from law enforcement should summit on the question of whether a comprehensive statewide set of rules regarding shared roads is appropriate. Issues of assessing operating rules to better promote predictability and universal understanding of how different vehicles interact in common road situations, as well as determining best practices for laying out shared roads with markings that travelers can identify from city to city are in everyone’s best interest.

When I wrote about this subject on two previous occasions – once in the Redmond Reporter (“Bicyclists need to pay their fair share for roads,” Aug., 25, 2011 and another time for (“Regional emphasis on road sharing raises need for licensing and regulation of bicycles and riders,” Mar. 4, 2009), the reaction from the cycling community was fierce. So far, a casual skim of today’s comment threads of major news articles covering the Democrats’ proposal indicates cyclists are not still reacting well to even a watered-down tax plan.

Regardless of whether cyclists are in a receptive mood, the Democrats have opened the door to a broader discussion of all ways we might improve the funding of shared roads and make them safer for all users.