Seattle City Council members have little disagreement on whether the city should enact a new $20 car-tab fee to help pay for the city’s transportation needs. 

They were divided Wednesday, though, on whether to direct that money to maintenance on the city’s aging bridges or leave open the possibility of spending it in other areas, like transit service or projects for people walking and biking.

The council debated a proposal from council members Alex Pedersen, Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis to charge the vehicle registration fee, also known as a car-tab fee, and direct the money to bridge maintenance. 

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., Madrona Venture Group, NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Ultimately, a majority of council members backed the fee but opted to wait on more public feedback before deciding how to spend it. The council will vote again as part of a final vote on the city budget next week.

The $20 fee would take effect in the middle of next year after a separate $60 fee expires, meaning it would not amount to an increase for Seattle drivers compared to current fees.

Advertising

The fee would raise about $3.6 million next year and $7.2 million in future years. The city spends about $6.6 million a year on bridge maintenance, far short of a low-end need of $34 million cited in a recent city audit report

In deciding whether to repair or replace the cracked West Seattle Bridge, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has cited potentially high costs to maintain a repaired bridge. Herbold, who represents West Seattle, argues that underscores the need for maintenance funding.

Council President M. Lorena González pitched an alternate proposal Wednesday imposing the new fee, but asking SDOT to consult with various unions, transit organizations and community groups to come up with a spending plan for the money by next spring. 

“There’s no question in my mind bridge maintenance is a need throughout the city,” but more input is “necessary in order to guide City Council decision-making” about how to spend the money, González said.

Pedersen argued “maintaining our bridges takes money and experts, not more process or lobbying at City Hall.”

Today, Seattle vehicle owners pay $80 in city car-tab fees, with $60 of that going toward bus service and expiring at the end of this year. The other $20 funds basic city projects like pothole repair. (Vehicle owners in Seattle also pay other car-tab fees to the state and to Sound Transit.)

Advertising

Some advocates for transit, biking and walking question using a fee previously spent on bus service for bridges instead.

“If there were a climate note attached to this legislation it would read, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” said Alice Lockhart from the climate group 350 Seattle during public comment Wednesday.

Council members narrowly approved swapping in González’s proposal in place of the original plan, and then seven members voted in favor of the fee. Pedersen abstained and Herbold voted no. 

“One way for us all to show how much we care about bridge maintenance is not introducing a process that could conceivably result in no money for bridge maintenance,” Herbold said.

City leaders have been eying a possible new car-tab fee after the Washington Supreme Court struck down Initiative 976, which would have lowered or eliminated various vehicle licensing fees. Voters statewide approved the measure, though it was unpopular in Seattle. The city and others sued to get the initiative thrown out.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant offered her own proposal Wednesday to get new transportation funding with a small increase to a payroll tax on large businesses instead. 

Car tabs are “deeply regressive,” Sawant said, and “hated — correctly so — by ordinary people, by poor people.” 

Council members rejected that proposal, with only Sawant voting in favor.