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Originally published July 19, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified July 21, 2011 at 7:02 AM

Voters may be asked to increase car-tab fees by $100

Seattle drivers might pay $100 more next year to register their cars, if voters approve new fees being considered by the city and King County.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

How to spend $27 million

Seattle car-tab fee

A PROPOSED $80 annual fee would increase Seattle's $310 million transportation budget by about $27 million annually, with the new money mainly benefiting non-automobile transportation. A city-appointed group recommends:

Road preservation and safety (30 percent): Street repair, pothole filling and paving worth $5 million; safety features such as traffic signals, lane markings, crosswalks, travel information, $3 million.

Transit (50 percent): Transit corridors including planning, construction, improving the electric trolley-bus network, $9.8 million; partnerships with social services for people who can't walk to transit, $2.7 million; improve transit "linkages" by developing underused urban spaces, education programs, $1.3 million.

Bicycles and pedestrians (20 percent): Sidewalks, curb ramps, crossings, education, $2.85 million; bicycle lanes, ridable streets, $1.85 million; neighborhood street fund sidewalks, greenery and traffic calming, $700,000.

Source: Citizens Transportation Advisory

Committee III statements, July 2011

quotes Vote No! City has enough taxpayer dollars already. The City will have to learn to... Read more
quotes Start taxing bicycles to pay for their bike paths. Car tabs and gas taxes should be... Read more
quotes These elected officials just don't get it. How many times (initiatives) does it take? ... Read more

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Seattle drivers might pay $100 more next year to register their cars, if voters approve new fees being considered by the city and King County.

Seattle City Council members are considering an $80 annual fee, with some money going toward road repair, but most earmarked for pedestrian, transit, bicycling and neighborhood-safety improvements. They'll decide next month whether to place it on the November ballot.

King County's proposed $20 fee, authorized for two years only, would prevent service cuts to Metro Transit. Six of the nine County Council members say they'll vote Monday to send that proposal to the citizens in November.

And then in 2012, voters or lawmakers will likely be asked to enact new gas taxes, car taxes, or some other revenue source. Gov. Chris Gregoire convened a committee this week to begin planning; gas taxes approved in the past decade are running 24 percent short of what the state predicted.

Seattle's proposal would have car owners pay for projects that promote the city's evolution toward non-car transportation.

If the proposed city and county fees are ultimately approved, a typical car-tab bill in Seattle would jump to $190 a year, including a weight fee, Sound Transit car-tab tax and handling charges.

That is comparable to levels in 1999, when car tabs were political poison. Tim Eyman's Initiative 695, to slash state car-tab fees down to $30 a car, prevailed statewide that year. It was struck down in court, but worried lawmakers approved $30 tabs anyway.

A few years later, many Seattle drivers squealed over a car-tab tax of $140 per $10,000 of vehicle value to fund a monorail, ultimately canceled. Unlike sales taxes, car tabs hit payers in one big lump, so some have a hard time paying, or at least they notice the bottom line.

Unlike the value-based monorail and pre-I-695 state taxes, which charged more to owners of newer and luxury cars, the new flat fees would be the same whether you drive a 2011 Lexus or a 1992 Econoline van. The average vehicle value in King County is $7,553.

"This is totally regressive," acknowledges Ref Lindmark, co-chair of the city's transportation advisory committee. But standing still is worse, he said. "The road bed doesn't get better, the bike lanes don't get built. If transit gets stuck in traffic, it doesn't improve any."

Advocates will argue the programs help lower-income people who can't or don't own cars.

Seattle Councilman Tom Rasmussen, chair of the transportation committee, said he visited senior citizens Tuesday who complained of kidney pain from riding through potholes at mid-Capitol Hill. So he believes the needs are great and wants to hear what others think:

"Is this the right time? Is this the right mix? Is this the right dollar amount?"

One advisory group member, John Littel, wrote a dissenting letter saying the economy is too weak to propose the car-tab fee this year. He also said a greater share should go to street preservation and maintenance, instead of transit, bike and pedestrian amenities. "In light of a $1.8 billion maintenance backlog, I can't support these proposed new improvements to the system, especially on the backs of Seattle working families renewing their car tabs," said Littel, political director for Northwest Carpenters.

One dilemma is whether voters will balk at so many new taxes and fees.

"I'm concerned the city and the county aren't networking well," says Paul Bachtel, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, representing Metro vehicle operators and mechanics. He doesn't object to the city's goals, he said, but, "It just doesn't put more buses on the street."

Union members have been leafleting the County Council districts of two swing voters, Jane Hague of Bellevue and Julia Patterson of SeaTac, in hopes they'll join in enacting the plan Monday, which would take six votes. More likely, the nine-member council will muster six votes to simply send the $20 fee to the ballot.

Patterson tossed her support behind the county plan Tuesday, after reading an analysis showing her district would see a net gain in service to offset the car fees.

Hague told The Seattle Times on Tuesday she favors a citizen vote. She supports cost reductions under way at Metro but says her constituents would lose bus hours, based on new criteria that favor busier routes in Seattle and the south end of the county. Hague says that in good conscience, she can't vote for the council itself to enact the fee.

If the Metro car-tab fee is defeated, managers warn of a 17 percent reduction in bus hours. Lower-use routes would be shortened or dropped. High-use routes, especially in Seattle, would be consolidated or reduced in frequency, so buses would be more crowded.

Craig Benjamin, co-chair of the Streets For All Seattle Coalition, started last year by the Sierra Club, Cascade Bicycle Club and other groups, says that the city's $80 car-tab measure will attract green, pro-transit voters who will also vote yes for Metro.

Seattle drivers in May started paying $20 more for car tabs, nearly half of which is going to roads.

A major push for the proposed additional $80 fee began last year, when advocates including the Sierra Club and Cascade Bicycle Club urged Mayor Mike McGinn to accelerate his "Walk Bike Ride" programs.

McGinn was reluctant to promise a boost in funds last year. Former Mayor Greg Nickels in 2007 had issued a $240 million Bicycle Master Plan with only a fraction of the funding in hand.

But last week, the city-appointed committee issued a letter suggesting how to spend the $27 million a year that an $80 fee would generate. Half would go to transit-related programs, nearly a third to bicycle, pedestrian and neighborhood improvements, and the rest to street work including pavement, markings and signals.

If Seattle approves this, Benjamin said, "it sends a really strong message" to state lawmakers that more projects for non-drivers need to be in the 2012 state package.

Lindmark, the committee co-chair, emphasized that road maintenance improves safety for bicyclists; transit spending helps drivers by reducing congestion; and walkways help transit by making it easier to catch the bus.

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

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