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Originally published November 9, 2011 at 9:11 PM | Page modified November 9, 2011 at 9:16 PM

Officials not suggesting new try on car-tab fee

Debate continued Wednesday about why Tuesday's $60 car-tab measure for transportation projects failed, but no one at City Hall was promising to quickly rework the proposal and place it before voters again anytime soon.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn on Wednesday rejected suggestions that the resounding defeat of the $60 car-tab measure was a repudiation of his walk-bike-ride transportation priorities.

Instead, he blamed the 60 percent no vote on the City Council for not placing on the ballot his proposal for an $80 car-tab fee. That fee would have been collected indefinitely and could have funded a network of streetcar lines.

"I wanted a bolder transit package to get rail out to the neighborhoods. The City Council chose to fund a lot of smaller projects. It wasn't clear to people what they were getting for their money," McGinn said.

Most council members, though, said McGinn's plan was an extravagance in a struggling economy, and they endorsed an advisory committee's more balanced mix of projects. Looking back after the defeat, several said the 10-year, $204 million transportation measure they unanimously put on Tuesday's ballot might have succeeded had it focused more on the city's estimated $1.8 billion backlog in road maintenance and less on alternative modes.

"To a lot of people, it smelled like bicycles and streetcars, even though that was a tiny portion of the total package," said Councilmember Sally Clark.

The money would have been spent this way: 22 percent for walking and cycling projects; 29 percent for streets and traffic safety; and 49 percent for transit projects, including $18 million on streetcar study and engineering.

Councilmember Jean Godden said she wasn't able to persuade any of her colleagues to devote more money to roads.

"In retrospect, we could have reconstructed the $60 package so it had more maintenance," Godden said.

McGinn on Wednesday mused that perhaps a package with a strong rail proposal plus more money for basic street maintenance might appeal to the public.

As debate continued about why Tuesday's measure failed, council members weren't promising to quickly rework the proposal and place it before voters again anytime soon. Rather, they suggested that the city work with state legislators to find other ways to fund transportation improvements.

Seattle leaders echoed voters' complaints that the car-tab fee was regressive because it charged the owners of a luxury vehicle the same as the owner of an old beater.

"We need to work in Olympia to get better transportation-funding options," said Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the council's transportation committee. One possibility, he said, would be to allow cities to collect an additional motor-vehicle excise tax based on vehicles' value.

The problem is that Olympia faces its own multibillion-dollar funding gap, not to mention the challenge of crafting a statewide transportation tax measure that Gov. Chris Gregoire has requested. Without a statewide tax, nearly every dollar of existing gas tax will be obligated to debt, maintenance and projects already in the works, such as the Highway 520 bridge.

Seattle isn't alone in rejecting a car-tab fee as a way to raise money for transportation projects. The Legislature in 2007 allowed cities to collect vehicle-license fees up to $100. The first $20 did not require voter approval. The additional $80 did. To date, dozens of cities have adopted the $20 car-tab fee, but none of them has won voter approval for more.

Bremerton and Burien voters rejected additional $30 license fees in 2009. Edmonds voters rejected an additional $40 fee in 2010.

"I think the question that resonated with voters was, "Is this a fair tax?" said Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who favored the $80 fee. "It was the best tool we had (to raise money for transportation), but people in Seattle care about fairness."

O'Brien said he'd like to see the mayor and council agree on transportation priorities before going back to voters. "We need to articulate a larger vision about where Seattle could be in five years," he said.

But some outside City Hall wonder if elected officials are still missing the message of Tuesday's vote.

Peter Sherwin, an Eastlake resident and former Monorail activist, said the loss shows Seattle got bad advice from its "citizens transportation advisory committee" that included staff from Downtown Seattle Association, Sierra Club, Transportation Choices Coalition, Vulcan and others he describes as "paid lobbyists." People whose livelihoods depend on cars and trucks weren't represented, he said.

Some of the Proposition 1 spending was foggy, such as $14 million for non-car education projects, incentives or service partnerships.

John Littel, political director of the Northwest Carpenters Union, cast the lone no vote on the advisory committee. His take-away from the election? "Investing in alternative transportation is fine, but don't do it on the backs of people who own cars."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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