The November election could be an expensive one for Seattle car owners. Last week, we reported that the King County Council is widely expected to put a measure on the ballot giving voters a choice between paying a $20 car tab fee or cutting 600,000 annual hours of Metro bus service. But that's just a fraction of what we'll be asked to spend. Within a week, the Seattle City Council may send another measure to the ballot asking voters to approve another $40 to $80 in car tab fees to fund road, bicycle, pedestrian, and transit improvements.
That's potentially another $100 a year added to the cost of owning a car in Seattle. Which, of course, raises the all-important question: What does all this mean for me?
Unlike most of my hippie colleagues here at The Stranger, I actually own and drive a (gasp) car. I suppose I could take transit to and from work, but due to parenting commitments and scheduling, it's just not all that convenient. Between commuting, leisure, errands, and carting my daughter around, I put about 7,000 miles a year on my 2001 Nissan Altima—infinitely more than my carless/childless/godless office comrades, but only about half the annual mileage of a real American.
So what do I currently pay for the pleasure of using our region's roads, highways, and bridges? It turns out, not all that much:
State registration fee: $30
State vehicle weight fee: $10
Seattle local transportation benefit district: $20
Sound Transit RTA (0.3% of value): $11
Filing fee: $3
License service fee: $0.75
Of course, I also pay 55.9 cents a gallon in gasoline tax. Add that to my tabs, and I currently pay the guvmint roughly $235 a year for the privilege of driving my car: less than 3.4 cents a mile.
Yeah, sure, there are other nontax costs related to owning and driving a car, but it's my choice to spend the extra money for the freedom of avoiding the mobile urinal that is the number 7 bus. Not to get all Pollyannaish on you, but considering the immense cost of building and maintaining our road system ($4.2 billion for a two-mile tunnel?!), I feel like I'm getting a pretty good value for my car tab dollars.
So what would an extra hundred bucks a year buy me? The $20 Metro fee is kind of a no-brainer, given that the alternative is a 17 percent cut in bus service.
As for the $80 in city fees proposed by the Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee III (CTAC III) and the $27.2 million a year it would raise, well, I like their priorities. They would dedicate 30 percent to road maintenance (more money for cars!), 20 percent to implementing the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans (fewer hippies driving!), and 50 percent to implementing the Transit Master Plan, with the bulk of that money, $9.8 million, devoted to transit corridor improvements (more transit, faster service, less pee).
According to CTAC III member Brice Maryman, seemingly minor improvements to transit corridors, like making it more efficient for people to board buses, can have huge payoffs. For example, most buses run through the central core at only six to eight miles per hour, so a mere two mile per hour increase would increase efficiency by 25 to 33 percent, freeing up equipment and drivers to provide additional service on these and other routes.
But city council members remain divided on just how much the car tabs should cost—and how the revenue should be spent.
On August 8, Council Member Mike O'Brien rolled out a formal proposal before the Seattle Transportation Benefit District board for an $80 fee, which would earmark half of the revenues to transit like the advisory committee recommended. However, Council Member Bruce Harrell, taking a read of voters reluctant to spend that much, said, "I just don't see people supporting that right now."
Council Members Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark introduced a compromise of $60, which would divide money much like O'Brien's proposal but costs less, hoping that will get more traction with voters.
On low end of the spectrum, Council Member Jean Godden floated a plan to charge a car tab fee of only $40 per year—half the recommended amount—and it would commit three-quarters of the money to roads and leave only 15 percent for transit.
While some car owners might object to a portion of their tab fees going toward non-car purposes, it's not like our roads are left unfunded or ignored in any scenario. CTAC III recommends using 44 percent of the existing $20 fee for pavement preservation, while 73 percent of our $544 million "Bridging the Gap" levy is already being spent on roads.
"We're investing in those chronically underfunded things that everyone uses," explains Maryman. "Everyone walks."
Even me. Like the 10 blocks I walk between The Stranger's offices and the nearest free, untimed street parking. Such a bargain!
City council members must take a final vote by August 16 to meet their deadline for placing car tab fees on the fall ballot. They should seriously consider the full $80 fee in addition to the $20 fee the county is considering for buses. Yes, patriotic car owners like me may be asked to pony up another hundred bucks, much of it to fund transit, but that's nothing compared to the 80 percent Metro fare increase—about $500 a year—my car-hating/bus-riding/tunnel-killing hippie coworkers have suffered since 2008. So who am I to complain?
"I think it will pass," offers Maryman optimistically. "This is about doing things that Seattle voters value: building sidewalks, filling potholes, making transit more efficient and reliable." And while suburban voters may balk at such communism, Seattle voters—even we drivers—tend to be willing to pay for the kind of city we want.