New Washington residents have 30 days to register their vehicles with the state Department of Licensing and pay the required taxes and fees.
Like many newcomers to Seattle, Jack Herndon moved here for a promising job.
He arrived in 1984 after spending eight years in Nebraska for a new position as an analytical chemist and settled in the Ballard neighborhood.
That was more than 30 years ago. Now, the population is growing rapidly, and traffic is growing with it.
Lately, he’s been spotting more and more cars with out-of-state license plates. One car with a New York state plate has lingered on a nearby street for more than two years, he said.
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It matters to Herndon because vehicle-registration and car-tab fees are one way state, regional and local agencies finance transportation projects.
“We’re spending a lot on infrastructure to handle the increased density,” he said. “Everyone should have to pull their weight.”
So he wrote to Traffic Lab.
“What is being done in the Department of Licensing to get people who move here to pay for Washington state transportation work?” Herndon asked.
First, let’s look at what new residents are supposed to pay when they bring a car to the Evergreen State.
Under state law, new Washington residents have 30 days to register their vehicle with the state Department of Licensing (DOL) and pay the required taxes and fees.
Among the charges, which all car owners have to pay, is a $30 basic registration fee, a variable fee based on the weight of the car, and various services fees. Owners of electric vehicles pay an additional $150 a year to support road projects. Electric cars avoid gas taxes, the primary source of money for state roads.
Newcomers also have to pay a separate $15 fee when registering their out-of-state vehicle in Washington.
People living in Seattle pay an $80 transportation benefit district fee, which largely goes to additional Metro bus service. Bainbridge Island, Burien, Everett, Mercer Island charge a $20 transportation benefit district fee, while Lynnwood and Shoreline charge $40.
People living in the Sound Transit taxing district pay additional voter-approvedcar-tab fees, to help finance construction of light rail plus more Sounder trains, park-and-ride spaces and bus-rapid transit over the next 25 years.
All told, someone who owns a 2012 Subaru Legacy with 58,000 miles on it, for example, would pay about $300 to register the car in Washington.
So, newcomers bringing a car here help finance transportation projects — assuming they actually register their cars as required.
But as reader Herndon noticed, that doesn’t always happen.
The DOL can’t say how many newcomers fail to register their cars on time. And the agency has no role in enforcing vehicle registrations. That job falls to law enforcement.
“If you get pulled over by law enforcement and your vehicle-registration address is out of state and your driver’s license address is within Washington, they can cite you,” said Christine Anthony, a DOL spokeswoman.
It’s a misdemeanor for a Washington resident to register a vehicle in another state to avoid paying the taxes and fees.
“We do enforce the fail-to-register law,” said Washington State Patrol Trooper Rick Johnson.
As a practical matter, an improper vehicle registration is usually discovered by troopers when they stop someone for another violation, Johnson said.
In King County, the State Patrol has contacted more than 700 people since January 2017 for having a vehicle improperly registered in another state, according to State Patrol data. In all of Washington, the State Patrol has contacted almost 4,700 people for out-of-state registrations since the beginning of 2017.
Other states and cities have tried to take action to reduce the number of registration scofflaws.
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