OLYMPIA — Facing persistent complaints about car-tab taxes, lawmakers are considering reducing those fees.
Hearing concerns about drivers blocking bus lanes and crosswalks in busy downtown Seattle, legislators might allow automated cameras to ticket those drivers.
Worried about gas-tax revenues, legislators might take a first step toward a new per-mile fee to fund transportation projects.
Or, they might fail to do all of those things.
With this year’s legislative session crossing the halfway mark, a list of possible changes to transportation policies and budgets is under consideration, but each proposal’s fate is uncertain.
Lawmakers have about a month left before the session is set to adjourn. In House and Senate transportation committee meetings, legislators have taken on some familiar controversial subjects.
Several Republican-sponsored bills to deeply slash or undo car-tab taxes already appear dead in the Legislature, where Democrats hold majorities in both chambers. A bill sponsored by Lynnwood Democratic Sen. Marko Liias has seen some movement, but faces steep odds.
Liias’s bill, SB 6606, would reduce Sound Transit car-tab taxes by changing most of the valuation schedule to one that has been on the books since 2006 but not used. It would also allow vehicle owners to pay those fees in monthly or quarterly payments instead of the lump sum that can come as a shock.
Voters approved car-tab tax hikes in 2016, but sticker shock hit when bills arrived and new attention was drawn to the formula Sound Transit uses to calculate those taxes, which overvalues many vehicles compared to their market value.
Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, called Liias’s bill a “centrist, moderate approach.” But the proposal would also repeal portions of Initiative 976, the voter-approved measure cut to car-tab taxes, which would take a two-thirds majority. Republicans so far appear unlikely to sign on.
“I can’t believe this is before us,” said Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, calling Sound Transit taxes “exorbitant.”
A bill to allow Seattle to use automated traffic cameras to ticket drivers who block bus lanes and crosswalks, SB 5789, also passed the Senate Transportation Committee with some Republican opposition. Seattle officials and Rooted in Rights, a disability rights advocacy group, back the bill.
“When drivers block curb cuts and crosswalks at intersections, it creates a dangerous situation for me. I need to wait in the middle of the street,” Blake Geyen, who uses a motorized wheelchair, told lawmakers.
The bill would allow the cameras only in limited areas in and around downtown and tickets would be $75, lower than the $136 ticket a police officer can write. Money from the tickets would be split evenly by the state and city, with the city portion required to be spent on transportation improvements for people with disabilities. Drivers would get warnings in 2020; tickets would start Jan. 1.
The effort stalled last year after prolonged debate that included concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. The ACLU and backers of the bill eventually reached a compromise, but lawmakers said they ran out of time to hear the bill for a full vote. This year, the ACLU initially registered some concerns but no longer opposes the bill after lawmakers added privacy protections.
Early discussions began this year on a possible new way of funding transportation needs in Washington state — a per-mile fee to eventually replace the gas tax — but a full shift is likely years in the future, if it’s ever implemented, and the idea faces opposition from some conservative groups.
A bill still alive in Olympia and sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, SB 6586, would start the shift by charging electric, hybrid and state-owned vehicles a per-mile fee beginning in 2024. It would at the same time do away with a $75 fee electric and hybrid vehicle owners pay now (another $150 fee is set to be lowered to $30 under I-976).
Specific per-mile rates would be established later by the state Transportation Commission and the Legislature.
Lawmakers are also continuing to untangle the biggest transportation question they face this session: How to deal with expected budget cuts due to Initiative 976.
The initiative would reduce state transportation revenue by about $454 million in the current two-year budget cycle, with the biggest hit to the state multimodal account, which funds transit and other non-roads expenses.
Legislators started with Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed transportation budget, which would pause projects across the state, shift costs among some state accounts and sell more than $100 million in bonds backed by gas-tax revenue.
Bonding quickly drew skepticism from both sides of the aisle, and lawmakers are now hashing out their own budget proposals. They expect to reveal their proposals later this month, said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chair of the House Transportation Committee, and then negotiate on any differences between the House and Senate.
Lawmakers from both parties want to avoid cuts to transportation programs for people with disabilities and transit in rural areas, Fey said.
Delaying projects comes with a cost, too. “Every project that gets delayed is going to be more expensive,” Saldaña said. Lawmakers may find some funding from state projects that have come in under budget, she said.
Bigger fights about new taxes for transportation will likely be punted to next year.
Uncertainty about I-976 is compounded by expensive demands, like a court order to remove culverts that block fish passage.
“This problem doesn’t go away just in this budget,” Fey said.