Three Seattle City Council members say the city should charge a new car-tab fee to pay for maintenance on the city’s aging bridges.
Councilmembers Alex Pedersen, Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis on Friday proposed a new $20 fee. The fee would raise about $3.6 million next year and $7.2 million a year in future years, council members say.
“The impending decision whether to repair or replace the West Seattle Bridge highlights the importance of ongoing investment in maintenance of Seattle’s bridges,” Herbold said in a prepared statement.
Pedersen, chair of the council’s transportation committee, said “underfunding” maintenance “increases the risk of harm and ends up costing taxpayers more later.”
The city closed the West Seattle Bridge after finding that cracks in the concrete girders were accelerating, though the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has said the closure did not “appear to be the result of any deficiency in our bridge maintenance program” because the bridge was being inspected.
A city audit report requested by Pedersen said what the city’s own transportation managers have long argued: That the city should be spending more on bridge maintenance. SDOT spends about $6.6 million a year but says it should be spending at least $34 million, the auditors found.
Six city bridges, including the 90-year-old University Bridge, are considered structurally deficient or in poor condition, which can indicate a need for significant repair or replacement.
The proposal will not include a detailed list of which bridges would receive extra maintenance, but would direct SDOT to prioritize bridges used by transit like King County Metro buses, Pedersen said. Council members will discuss the proposal next week as they continue debating the 2021 budget.
Some advocates for people who take transit, walk and bike were skeptical of the proposal.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and devastating recession. Is bridge maintenance the best transportation investment in this moment? Or should we be directing this revenue towards transportation investments that more directly address the needs of the people most impacted?” said Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington.
When Pedersen floated the idea for increasing bridge-maintenance spending last month, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda described the idea as a “mostly car centric proposal.”
As chair of the council’s budget committee, Mosqueda this week proposed a package of changes to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget. The package included a Pedersen proposal to add $4 million for inventorying bridge conditions.
Pedersen argued the city has other sources of funding for transit, bike and pedestrian facilities and is already restoring some transportation projects the mayor had previously proposed cutting. He pointed to a sales tax for bus service voters recently passed and to reserves the city has from existing transit taxes.
“I believe bridges help all modes of travel and yet why not have car users pay for something they’re using?” Pedersen said in an interview. “I think it makes sense for the type of funding to match up [to the use].”
If passed, the legislation would permanently enact the $20 fee, but council members could change how the money is spent in the future, as part of their yearly budget process.
Representatives for Laborers Local 242, Ironworkers Local 86 and the Sodo Business Improvement Area offered statements supportive of the fee Friday.
State law allows the City Council to impose the fee without going to voters for approval. The proposal would need support from a majority of the council.
The fee may not feel like an increase to some drivers. Today, vehicle owners pay $80 in city car-tab fees, with $20 of that for basic road projects and $60 for bus service. The $60 bus service fee will expire at the end of this year. With the new fee, vehicle owners would pay $40 in city car tab fees next year, instead of $80.
Seattle vehicle owners also pay fees to the state for various transportation projects and to Sound Transit to build new light rail. In this month’s election, Seattle voters renewed and increased a sales tax for bus service.
The Washington Supreme Court cleared the way for cities like Seattle to continue using car-tab fees for transportation projects last month when the court struck down Initiative 976. The Tim Eyman-sponsored measure would have stripped cities of their ability to charge local car-tab fees.
While the measure passed statewide, Seattle voters rejected it.