A majority of Seattle City Council members declared their intent Wednesday to spend $75 million in future car-tab revenue to repair aging bridges, despite pushback from pedestrian advocates who said the plan shortchanges safety.

Funding would come from a $20 annual fee that begins July 1. The money was initially proposed last fall for bridges, but council members hesitated and launched a public-outreach process. A diverse advisory group, and Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe, suggested devoting three-quarters of the money to walk, bike, planning or traffic-safety programs, and one-fourth to bridges.

Instead, the bridge-oriented version won a 5-0 endorsement Wednesday in the Transportation & Utilities Committee, by Councilmembers M. Lorena González, Lisa Herbold, Tammy Morales, Alex Pedersen and Dan Strauss. Councilmembers Debora Juárez, Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda previously backed a similar pro-bridge version.

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.

The car-tab fee will bring in $7.2 million per year. The council could raise $100 million by issuing 20-year bonds, and of that money, three-quarters would be devoted to bridges, under the planned budget amendment.

An audit last year found Seattle averaged $6.6 million per year for bridge maintenance, but should spend $34 million. Drawbridges are critical, and SDOT this year listed $8 million in urgent preservation jobs, primarily to replace aging lift motors.

Advertising

“If the bridges fail, the Coast Guard orders them in the open position permanently, because maritime traffic takes precedence,” warned Jordan Royer, representing Washington Maritime Federation, during Wednesday’s public-comment period.

Others argued traffic safety is more urgent.

Annemarie Dooley, a member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, said directing most of the money to bridges “will allow unnecessary deaths to continue on Seattle streets.”

“An hour ago I spoke with doctors at Harborview who see and treat trauma patients. And one of those patients last week was a 2-year-old hit by a car now with permanent brain injury,” Dooley said. “I have no doubt that the amendment if passed will allow the continued flow of severely injured people to Harborview.”

About $25 million in future car-tab proceeds, plus $2.75 million in 2021, would still go to nonbridge safety or planning projects.

If the full council passes the ordinance on Monday as expected, SDOT would return by Sept. 30 with a $100 million project list that could be funded by a 2022 bond sale.

The list must include $75 million for bridges. However, this week’s language is not a final spending decision, and council members are free to choose some other project mix at budget time.

Advertising

An amendment by Strauss also adds flexibility to finance bonds with additional revenue sources. It names Magnolia Bridge and the Second Avenue South Extension bridge, alongside King Street Station, as needing upgrades, in addition to drawbridges.

A previous $60 car-tab fee expired in 2020. That money, which supported frequent bus service, free fares for students and shuttle vans, is being replaced by a new voter-approved sales tax of 15 cents per $100 purchase.

The upcoming $20 car-tab fee adds to an SDOT budget that totals $608 million this year. City drivers continue to pay a basic $20 for maintenance.