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Originally published Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 11:40 AM

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McGinn proposes $20 car-tab fee, higher parking lot taxes

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is considering a car-tab fee of $20 a year and an increase of 5 to 10 percent in parking lot taxes, he said Wednesday morning.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn intends to propose a car-tab fee of $20 a year and up to a doubling of parking lot taxes, he said Wednesday morning.

The parking lot tax would raise $10 million to $20 million per year, while the car-tab fee would raise about $7 million per year.

Either or both could be passed by the City Council without a citizen vote, McGinn said.

The money raised would prevent the city from having to slash basic street maintenance, and there likely would be some left over to accelerate bicycle and pedestrian projects, according to city transportation director Peter Hahn.

However, he and McGinn could not say how much money would remain for those kinds of improvements.

McGinn emphasized that he remains committed to contributing $15 million toward a new South Park bridge.

This year alone, the Seattle Department of Transportation (DOT) is facing an $8 million shortfall in its general city taxes and a share of state gas taxes. Besides those sources, the city persuaded voters in 2006 to approve a nine-year, $365 million property tax levy in the 2006 "Bridging the Gap" program, and the city council enacted a parking tax and employee head tax. The employee tax was repealed in 2009, a loss of about $5 million this year.

Seattle's parking tax is currently 10 percent, and was budgeted to bring in $18 million this year. McGinn's proposal would raise the rate to 15 to 20 percent.

The new tax proposals would be submitted in September as part of overall city budget proposals.

McGinn pointed to the $8 million loss in transportation money coming from the city's general fund and from state gas tax, or 14 percent of the $55.3 million expected from those sources. However, the entire budget is about $301 million for 2010, including outside grants for major projects, according to finance department revenue breakdowns. So the overall deficit is far less than 14 percent.

U-District squeeze

In the University District, where merchants offer validated parking to their customers, the businesses would likely absorb the added tax, said Darin Willis, assistant manager of University District Parking Associates. Costs also would be passed on to employees who park daily or monthly, and some residents parking overnight, he said.

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"We're already struggling out here," he said. "It will have a big impact."

The University of Washington reports paying about $1.4 million in tax this year on about 12,000 spaces. UW is running up against the limits of what it can charge, without diverting drivers to private lots, said transportation services director Josh Kavanagh. Fees range from $3 a day for carpools in the Montlake "E1" lot up to $282 a month for a solo driver in a reserved upper-campus space.

UW has asked for exemptions from the city tax, as the university already devotes 47 percent of parking prices to subsidize transit passes, bike facilities and the like, Kavanagh said. Only 21 percent of students and staff now drive alone.

Kavanagh said the tax structure is inequitable because it doesn't apply to so-called "free parking" spaces offered by some employers and merchants throughout the city. If the goal is raising money to fix worn-out roads, that traffic should be taxed too, he said. Doing so is a "smarter tax" and could reduce the need to boost rates further, he said.

Roads to taxation

Besides taxes, Hahn announced cost trims to make up the missing $8 million this year: fewer maintenance checks of traffic lights; less cleaning and mowing by the roadside; cuts in managers and planning; and other deferred maintenance.

Across the state, six city councils in the state already have imposed a $20 car-tab fee to shore up their road budgets: Lake Forest Park, Des Moines, Edmonds, Olympia, Prosser and Shoreline.

Burien voters last year rejected a $25 car-tab fee to add bike trails, but the City Council enacted a $10 car fee for roads this spring.

Five other cities collect commercial parking taxes: SeaTac, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Mukilteo and Tukwila, according to 2007 information from Municipal Research.

Seattle's new tax proposals come four years after voters approved a "Bridging the Gap" property tax levy for street maintenance, sidewalks, traffic signals and trails, while the City Council passed parking and employee taxes for major bridge and road projects.

But the recession has chewed into other sources, and McGinn said he fears the city will slide backward on basic maintenance.

Meanwhile, environmental groups earlier this year urged McGinn to increase spending for transit, pedestrians and bicycling. About $3 million a year now goes to bike projects, and that could grow under Wednesday's proposals.

McGinn said bicycling is the fastest growing form of transportation in Seattle, but he is not interested in creating any sort of bicycle-license fee to raise money because it would be expensive to administer, and he doesn't want to discourage people from taking up cycling.

Pothole Rangers slowing

McGinn is also extending the amount of time the city takes to fix potholes as a cost-saving measure. Former Mayor Greg Nickels made 48-hour pothole response central to his 2003 campaign for mayor. But Hahn said quick-fixes only last about three months before they have to be repaired again.

"All of a sudden you get to know the people who do the pothole (fixes) on a first-name basis," because they come back to your neighborhood so many times, Hahn said.

By extending response time to 72 hours, Hahn said, the city can do a 12-month fix instead of three months. Hahn compared the Nickels' administration fixes to a band-aid.

"I can slap it on and move on, or I can press it down a little bit and remove the dirt," he said.

McGinn said SDOT will save $868,000 by reducing the number of pothole crews by one.

Seattle Times staff reporter Emily Heffter contributed to this report.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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