Seattle residents will be asked to vote in November on a $60 car-tab fee, which would bring in more than $200 million in 10 years for transit, road maintenance, pedestrian and bicycle projects.

Share story

Seattle residents will vote this November on a $60 car-tab fee, about half of which would go toward transit projects.

The fee would be collected for 10 years and bring in an estimated $204 million. The Seattle City Council voted 9-0 Tuesday to endorse the measure, on the heels of a $20 increase that took effect this spring.

Council members could have sent a total fee of $80 to the ballot, but called $60 a compromise amount. They repeated the mantra, “Fix what we have, and finish what we started.”

No definite list of projects is attached to the ballot measure. The city has produced various reports that identify areas where the money could be spent, including specific transit corridors and neighborhoods. A new Transit Master Plan is due by the end of this year.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

In all, 49 percent would go to transit, 29 percent to road maintenance and safety, and 22 percent mostly to pedestrian and bicycle projects.

On Monday, the Metropolitan King County Council approved a $20, two-year car-tab fee to sustain bus services.

City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the transportation committee, referred to that fee on Tuesday: “What good is it to have buses on the street if they can’t get through the traffic?”

While the county pays for bus maintenance and driver hours, Seattle’s money could go for street work to make buses faster. For example, sidewalks can protrude toward the street so buses stop in their lane of travel, rather than pull to the shoulder and lose time re-entering traffic.

Other projects could make walking to bus stops easier. There could be educational programs, and money to help make neighborhoods more attractive near transit. City officials suggest an average $4 million to $5 million each for the top eight to 10 transit corridors.

About $20 million could go to extend the electric-trolley bus network, which includes some of Metro’s busiest routes. Seattle could fund overhead power wires.

An additional $18 million could go toward streetcar design and planning, with the highest priority a line between the South Lake Union streetcar and the First Hill streetcar scheduled to open in 2013. That route could go north-south through downtown, Rasmussen said.

The Transportation Choices Coalition, Cascade Bicycle Club, Sierra Club and Streets for All Seattle said they will campaign for the measure.

John Fox, head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, called the tax regressive, because the owner of a luxury Lexus would pay the same as someone driving a 30-year-old Chevrolet.

Mayor Mike McGinn, in a statement, thanked the council for putting the fee on the ballot, though he preferred the full $80, for more years, to build rail links, including a Ballard line.

Councilmember Jean Godden had suggested a lower $40 fee, and putting most of that toward road maintenance. But she said Tuesday the proposed $60 million for roads and safety is adequate.

She said it’s important to stay flexible, especially about streetcars.

“We have done this in a very quick time frame, and have not had the public weigh in as much as it might,” she said. The council had until Tuesday to approve the fee in time for the November ballot.

If voters approve the proposed city fee on Nov. 8, a typical car-tab bill in Seattle would jump to $170 a year, including a new $20 county fee for Metro, a weight fee, a Sound Transit tax and handling charges.

Rasmussen said one reason to reach the ballot right away is to avoid competing with an expected flurry of measures in 2012.

One of those could be a statewide transportation tax or fee to improve deteriorating or clogged highways the state Department of Transportation can’t afford to fix with gas tax and car-tab boosts that lawmakers approved in the mid-’00s.

Another is a possible property-tax levy to pay for a new sea wall along Elliott Bay.

The cost of car tabs has crept up gradually after Initiative 695, the Tim Eyman measure in 1999 that pressured lawmakers to slash the statewide rate to $30. “Have even Seattle voters reached the tipping point on hit-the-poor-the-most taxes?” Eyman commented. “We’re about to find out.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.