Pedersen, Herbold, Lewis propose $40 car-tab fee to increase bridge maintenance

This week Council members Pedersen, Herbold and Lewis are jointly introducing a last-minute addition to the 2021 budget that would increase the city’s car-tab fee from $20 to $40, in order to raise additional funds for much-needed bridge maintenance.

The increased car-tab fee is authorized under state law as part of the powers of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD).

There’s a bit of a “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” aspect to the STBD, so it’s worth taking a moment to lay it all out.

In 2010, the City Council authorized the creation of the STBD, establishing the nine City Council members as its governing board.  Under state law, the Governing Board has a limited ability to directly impose certain taxes and fees, and the voters can establish higher (but not unlimited) vehicle-license fees and other taxes. In 2016 the Council subsumed the STBD powers and authorities into city government, an administrative simplification without much other significance.

Just to make sure we’re super clear on this potentially confusing point:  the Transportation Benefit District itself never expires, nor does a vehicle-license fee that its Governing Board imposes on its own authority; though the Governing Board can rescind the vehicle-license fee at any time, and the City Council could dissolve the STBD at some future point in time. In contrast, additional voter-approved tax and fee levies passed under the auspices of the STBD are for fixed terms and do expire.

In October 2010, the Council, acting as STBD Governing Board, authorized an ongoing $20 vehicle license fee. That fee is still in place.

In 2014, the voters passed STBD Proposition 1, which increased the vehicle license fee by $60 to $80, and added a 0.1% local sales tax. That tax authorization expires on December 31, 2020.

Initiative 976 would have stripped away all authority for imposing vehicle license fees under the STBD. However, last month the state Supreme Court invalidated it. But in the meantime while waiting for the Court to rule, the Council needed to propose some form of renewal STBD Proposition 1 before it ran out at the end of the year. They chose to propose a six-year 0.15% sales tax, with no vehicle license fee, proceeding on the worst-case assumption that the Court would not invalidate I-976. And the voters passed that renewal earlier this month. So as things stand right now going into next year, the STBD will be imposing the $20 vehicle-license fee that the Council can enact on its own without voter approval, plus a 0.15% sales tax for the next six years.

But state law has more to say on the STBD governing board’s ability to impose a vehicle-license fee: it says that it can go up to $40 once a $20 fee has been in place for at least two years. Since it’s been in place for ten years now, Pedersen, Herbold and Lewis are proposing to invoke that authority now.

Their proposed bill does not codify restrictions on the use of the extra revenues — expected to be about $7.2 million per year — but it signals the Council’s intent that the funds should be spent on increasing SDOT’s budget for maintenance of bridges that “support high-capacity transit or multiple modes of travel.” That is, it can’t just be a car bridge; it needs to have bike lanes or be a bus route as well. This restriction is no doubt intended to try to appease advocates in the community who oppose further investments in car-centric infrastructure.

As reported previously, the city has been dramatically under-funding bridge maintenance for decades, and now carries a substantial (and still increasing) backlog of deferred maintenance. By industry standards, SDOT’s bridge maintenance budget should be somewhere between $34 million and $102 million per year; Mayor Durkan’s 2021 propose budget increased it to $10 million, and so far the Council has found another $4 million to add to the pot. Given that it will take six months to implement the new vehicle license fee, assuming the Council adopts it, an additional half-year of revenues would increase the total in 2021 to about $18 million — still far short of even the minimum that the city should be spending.

The three Council members published a press release on Friday touting this proposal. Look for it to be discussed and potentially voted upon on Wednesday during the Council’s budget deliberations.

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