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January 25, 2011 at 10:21 AM

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State lawmakers propose $30 car-tab fee to fund transit

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Pro-transit Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, has lined up 30 co-sponsors for a bill allowing transit agencies House Bill 1536 to impose a "congestion reduction charge" of $30 per year on car-tabs in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

If approved, the fees could be collected on 2012 and 2013 renewals.

The charge is meant to bolster agencies whose sales taxes dipped in the Great Recession - bringing in an estimated $38 million a year for King County Metro. It would not apply to Sound Transit, Liaas said.

"While the economy struggles, more people are choosing to save money by using transit, making this exactly the wrong time to stand idly by while massive cuts are made," Liias said in a blog post.

The $30 figure is poignant because in 1999, voters supported Tim Eyman's Initiative 695 to reduce car-tab taxes to a flat $30. Courts tossed I-695 but lawmakers and Gov. Gary Locke bent to the political winds and approved the $30 tabs. Lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire approved weight fees in recent years that sent the total creeping upward. Sound Transit collects a car-tab tax of $30 per $10,000 of vehicle value.

Liias is the vice-chair of the House Transportation Committee, and Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, is a co-sponsor of the bill, a lineage that should help its odds of at least passing the House.

Liias said he opted for this bill because a public vote would be too expensive, considering the fee would end after only two years.

King County Executive Dow Constantine supports additional transit funding as part of his legislative agenda this year, spokesman Frank Abe said.

King County Metro is the nation's 10th-largest transit agency, providing nearly 400,000 trips a day.

Counties and cities already have authority to impose car-tab fees of up to $100 a year - but those require a public vote, if over $20. Several cities including Seattle have enacted a $20 fee for local streets. This new fee for transit could be imposed by majority vote of the King County Council, or the boards of Community Transit or Pierce Transit.

Pierce Transit has already sent a proposed sales-tax increase to the Feb. 8 ballot.

The co-sponsors include only one Republican, Mike Armstrong of Wenatchee, ranking minority member on the Transportation Committee.

Armstrong says he co-signed only because wants to work to change the bill - mainly, he believes the fee should be sent to voters in a ballot measure, not imposed by the agencies. Also, a transit-tax option should be available to voters in Spokane, Vancouver, and the Tri-Cities, he said Tuesday.

According to Liias, only King County Metro and Community Transit have shown interest in a $30 fee, even after he contacted transit providers around the state. And he left out the Sound Transit system because it's the "local, Main Street" service that's already taking cuts -- notably Community Transit's decision last year to suspend all bus service on Sundays.

Armstrong claims he's taking political risks this year to co-sponsor anything related to fees and taxes. But he said he believes in letting urban residents make their own choices. (Avid readers will recall last year, Armstrong said he doesn't believe in soaking Seattle taxpayers in the event the state Department of Transportation breaks its $2 billion budget for the Highway 99 tunnel.)

"I represent the 12th Legislative District, but I'm a state representative, it's a big state, and trying to make it work for everybody is important," he said. "Sometimes, what works for people west of the mountains is different from what works on the east side of the mountains."

Eyman called the Liias bill "a totally tone-deaf, arrogant proposal," given the anti-tax mood of voters in November. He figuratively rolled his eyes at the fact he lives in Liias' district. "We just can't afford higher taxes, higher fees," he said.

As a practical matter, Armstrong predicted legislators aren't willing to pass such a bill unless any new car-tab fees go to the public ballot. Transit agencies can refer the $30 fee to local voters if they wish, said Liias, and in the past, some King County Council members have said they're unwilling to add transit taxes without a ballot measure.

More coverage is at Seattle Transit Blog and Publicola.

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Jim Brunner
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Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

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