Four Seattle City Council members suggest using car-tab fees to finance a $100 million bond sale next year, devoted primarily to repair or improve aging bridges.
It’s the latest plot twist in city debates about how to exploit a $20 annual car-tab fee increase, which takes effect in July. It should rake in $7.2 million per year.
Besides creating skilled jobs, council members say the bond sale would legally “lock down” the car-tab revenue stream through bond contracts, so a future Tim Eyman-style initiative can’t claw the car-tab money away.
The $100 million proposal was announced by council members Alex Pedersen of northeast Seattle, Lisa Herbold of West Seattle and South Park, Andrew Lewis of Queen Anne-Magnolia and downtown, and citywide member Teresa Mosqueda. It was discussed Wednesday in committee, where Debora Juárez of north Seattle also endorsed it. More talks and a possible committee vote are expected May 5.
Lewis describes the strategy, which would spend 75% of the money on city bridges, as “go big on infrastructure.”
By selling $100 million in bonds, he said, Seattle can try to attract and leverage federal grants to accomplish more.
“In a city carved by waterways and ravines, we rely on bridges to support all modes of transportation that connect us and keep our economy moving,” the council members said in a statement. “We have a duty to stop kicking the can down the road, and now we have an opportunity to go bigger and bolder to build back better.”
One goal is to reverse years of underfunded bridge maintenance. An audit last year, prompted by a closure of the cracked West Seattle bridge, found the city averaged only $6.6 million a year for bridge maintenance, far short of a needed $34 million. Six city bridges are structurally deficient.
Herbold said the $20 car-tab increase offers a rare chance to invest in bridges soon. The next chance wouldn’t come until a possible 2024 property-tax levy renewal that won’t deliver cash until 2025, she said.
Though politically charged, this week’s car-fee debate represents a fraction of Seattle’s transportation budget, projected at $608 million this year.
Advocates for alternatives to driving complain Pedersen, who chairs the council’s Transportation & Utilities Committee, ignored feedback from 23 community groups about how to spend the car-tab money.
That feedback led to a plan this spring by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to allocate the car-tab fees to six general categories, with 24% to bridges, 28% each for sidewalks and safety, and smaller shares for cash reserves, planning and walk-bike route maintenance.
“To throw away this [SDOT] plan is to make a mockery of good outreach, stakeholder engagement and City commitments to tackle the crises around climate, traffic safety, and mobility justice,” said The Urbanist, a website that promotes increased transit and housing.
However, the new plan would still spend most of the $3.6 million expected to be collected in 2021, and one-fourth of the future income, toward non-bridge programs.
Councilmember Tammy Morales, of southeast Seattle, isn’t convinced “75% for bridges and 25% for sidewalks” reflects the best priorities. “I have two constituents who died in the last two weeks on their bicycles,” she said Wednesday. “Hundreds of housing units are in the pipeline along Rainier Avenue, where sidewalks are buckling from tree roots.”
Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of the volunteer group Seattle Subway, said the city should spend $3 million creating a master plan that includes cross-city light rail.
The council let the $60 transit portion expire Dec. 31 after Eyman’s I-976 to slash car-tab taxes passed in November 2019. The state Supreme Court tossed out I-976 in October 2020, but Seattle had already opted not to send the $60 fee back to a public vote. Instead, voters last November passed a sales-tax for city transit of 15 cents per $100 purchase.
The city has continued collecting a $20 annual car-tab fee that helps pay for basic projects like pothole repair. The council approved a $20 fee increase in November and Pedersen, Lewis and Herbold proposed spending that money on bridges. But a majority of Council members told SDOT to gather public comment about how to spend the money more broadly.
Now sentiment is swinging toward more spending more on bridges.
“This approach will create jobs right now when we need them, coming out of the economic recession,” Pedro Espinoza, political director for the Northwest Carpenters Union, testified to council members Wednesday morning.
SDOT said it needs $8 million for urgent repairs to the University, Ballard, Fremont and Spokane Street movable bridges. Also, SDOT can afford to seismically retrofit just 11 of 16 bridges promised in the 2015 Move Seattle levy.
Even $100 million won’t fund everything council members want. A new Magnolia Bridge might require $300 million for the midrange option. As for seismic work, new research predicts a whopping $249 million is needed to rebuild foundations and beams at the Fourth Avenue South/Argo bridge, where a lane has been closed since 2017 to reduce stress on the span.
At a meeting on Monday, Lewis mentioned his “unpleasant experience” crossing the narrow Ballard Bridge walkway, but money for widening that span has not been proposed.
Sam Zimbabwe, SDOT director, told council members he questions the concept of tying down 20 years worth of car-tab money in an immediate bond sale, instead of keeping a steady revenue stream for bridge or other maintenance.
The City Council has authority to increase car-tab fees another $10 a year in 2023, or refer an increase of up to $60 to Seattle voters.