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Originally published Friday, August 12, 2011 at 10:44 AM

King County Council to spare Metro service with $20 car-tab fee

The Metropolitan King County Council will approve a $20 car-tab fee to spare Metro bus service from deep cuts.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes I always wonder why I see so many nearly empty buses driving around town. Read more
quotes I don't understand why the answer is always to punish those that don't use the service... Read more
quotes Hey Metro, how about cutting pay before dumping a $20 additional tab fee on those who... Read more

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Jane Hague was always the key, the King County Council member seen as the most likely swing vote by advocates of a $20 car-tab fee to forestall cuts in Metro bus service.

Hague is a moderate Republican who lobbied state lawmakers to give King County authority to charge such a fee. She's also been clobbered in a tough re-election race for not supporting the fee.

On Friday, Hague reversed her position. Along with Councilmember Kathy Lambert, she announced she would cast a decisive vote Monday to create the council supermajority needed to enact the fee.

In exchange for their votes, Hague and Lambert said they won reforms and efficiencies in negotiations with County Executive Dow Constantine and Metro.

"This cuts waste, offers meaningful reform and preserves jobs," Hague said of the agreement.

In response to anti-tax activist Tim Eyman's claim that they traded their votes for "lollipops" or budget earmarks, Lambert replied, "I didn't get any lollipops — absolutely nothing."

Both Hague and Lambert said they switched their votes because changes they negotiated were worth it.

Those include: phasing out Metro's subsidy for the free-ride zone in downtown Seattle; running lower-cost smaller buses on less-popular routes; and providing $24 in bus tickets to people who pay the car-tab fee — and allowing people who don't want those tickets to donate the value to a pool of human-service agencies.

Eliminating the free-ride zone would save Metro $2.2 million a year, according to Jim Jacobsen, the agency's deputy manager. Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, the Transportation Committee chairman, said the city might find a way to preserve some free rides downtown.

Lambert said hard negotiations continued into Thursday night. "I'm wearing red," she said at Friday's announcement, "so nobody sees the blood."

Hague, in particular, was under pressure to support the fee. The deadline to mail in primary ballots is Tuesday, and the four-term council member from Bellevue is in the most challenging campaign of her career.

She acknowledged another reason for her switch: Bellevue is changing.

Her council district, she noted, voted for the 2006 Transit Now sales-tax ballot measure.

Leslie Lloyd, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association, said the city is getting younger and more transit-oriented. The median age of downtown residents has gone from 57 in 2000 to 33 last year, Lloyd said. "These are younger people to whom transit is very important."

Hague said a pivotal moment for her came during passionate testimony from citizens, when she realized "how many vulnerable people couldn't afford cars."

She admitted her decision is controversial and the cost might be her job.

But she insisted, "It's the right thing to do."

Eyman said his beef is Hague and Lambert never signaled in messages to constituents that they might approve the fee in exchange for reforms. Instead they maintained the issue should go to voters in a ballot measure.

Others say Hague's switch might just save her campaign.

The University of Washington, Microsoft, King County Conservation Voters, Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, King County Labor Council and many other organizations backed the fee.

Without new revenue to offset a sales-tax drop from the economic downturn, Metro says, it would have to cut 17 percent of bus-service hours. Most routes would become less frequent or more crowded, and some would be cut. Ridership would drop by about 9 percent, according to Metro.

Hundreds of bus riders packed public hearings in Burien, Seattle and Kirkland to urge council members to adopt the car-tab fee, which will add an estimated $25 million a year to Metro.

The fee is supposed to last two years. It can't be imposed until six months after Constantine signs legislation the council is scheduled to vote on Monday.

Once in effect, the owner of a 2005 Toyota Camry in Renton would pay a total of $99.75 in vehicle license fees. In more rural parts of the county outside Sound Transit's taxing district, such as Enumclaw, a car-owner would pay $63.75.

In Seattle, where city officials imposed an additional $20 car-tab fee in May, the total for a 2005 Camry would be $119.75.

Seattle officials are considering placing on the November ballot up to $80 in additional car-tab fees to pay for transit, road maintenance and bike and pedestrian improvements.

Six of the nine County Council members had said they were willing to put the fee on the November ballot. But only five — all Democrats — said they were willing to enact the fee without going to voters. A supermajority of six of the council's nine members was needed to adopt the fee without a ballot measure.

Constantine thanked thousands of citizens who testified and sent messages to county officials urging them to adopt the fee. He gave extra praise to the Transit Rescue Coalition, a group of business, education, environmental and transit advocates that pushed for the fee.

Constantine staked out his support for the fee months ago and started lobbying council members, trying to secure six votes, which meant he had to persuade at least one Republican council member to back a new tax.

The Legislature in 2007 allowed local jurisdictions to impose $20 vehicle-license fees without going to the ballot — or up to $100 with voter approval.

Material from Seattle Times archives was included in this report. Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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