State initiative will kill car tab fee used by some cities — cutting money for fixing roads

By Wendy Culverwell

Tri-City Herald

But Tri-City officials say the fallout from anti-tax activist Tim Eyman’s latest assault on car license fees and other transportation taxes will be felt here too.

Richland and Prosser, in particular, would see their road funds slashed.

Richland’s car tab fee collected about $1 million last year and Prosser’s nearly $100,000.

Initiative 976 would reset passenger car tab fees to $30 and repeal the ability of about 60 Washington cities to charge their own car tab fees.

It will be on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Statewide, the initiative would cut transportation revenue to the state by an estimated $2.3 billion by 2025, according to the Office of Fiscal Management.

Most notably, I-976 would potentially trim Sound Transit’s 0.8 percent motor vehicle excise tax to 0.2 percent and other changes.

That would translate to a loss of $328 million per year in revenue to the Puget Sound area transit agency, based on 2018 numbers.

And statewide, the 60-plus other transportation benefit districts (TBDs) that charge car tab fees collected $58 million last year.

In the Tri-Cities, the car tab fees will almost certainly be a local, as well as statewide, political question.

Mayors in Richland and Prosser say the initiative’s passage would force tough choices — let roads deteriorate, cut other expenses or raise property taxes.

“At the end of the day, you have to pay for your stuff,” Richland Mayor Bob Thompson told the Herald. “The question is, whose ox is gored?”

Thompson, an attorney, anticipates a legal challenge, possibly on the grounds I-976 may illegally violate a legal requirement that initiatives address a single subject.

Thompson and Richland’s other six city council members voted in unison in 2017 to create the city’s transportation district and to fund it with the $20 car tab fee.

At the time, the city said it needed $4 million to complete the funding package for the $38 million Duportail Bridge.

Car tab fees would repay a bond to cover the cost. Anything left over would boost the budget for street maintenance.

Vocal Richland residents had lobbied against the move and they kept on fighting it during the 2017 election, when four council seats were on the ballot.

Councilwoman Dori Luzzo Gilmour lost her council seat to Michael Alvarez in part over her support of the car tab fee.

Thompson retained his seat when he edged out a largely unknown challenger by about 500 votes.

This year, Thompson is standing for reelection again. The race appears on the same ballot that will include I-976.

Lillian “Randy” Slovic, the frontrunner challenger to Thompson in unofficial primary election results, said she’s skeptical about the initiative.

“I want safer, well-maintained transportation infrastructure in Richland. Restricting local control with this initiative could hurt that and cost us more in the long run,” she said.

Kalen Finn, who trails Slovic and Thompson, had said in the primary voter’s guide that he would work to reduce or repeal Richland’s car tab fees.

Thomson defends car tab fees as an equitable way to pay for roads.

The fees are paid by the vehicle owners who use the roads. The city’s other option is to raise property taxes.

“That impacts people who don’t drive,” he said.

Richland began collecting car tab fees in 2018. By mid-2019, the owners of about 40,000 vehicles registered in the city had ponied up $1.4 million in the first 18 months.

To date, Richland has dedicated $1.1 million to pavement preservation — maintenance to preserve and extend the life of city streets and roads.

State and federal money all but paid for the Duportail Bridge and no bonds have been sold.

The Duportail project won’t be directly affected but the city will have to find a way to repay the $1.7 million it “loaned” the project for design and pre-construction work.

That loan has to be repaid by 2023. Car tab fees provide $177,000 of the $355,000 loan payment.

The bridge is set to open in mid-2020 and will provide a new corridor between central Richland and the growing south side, including the Queensgate area.

The bridge will carry a new water main to south Richland. It will replace the aging, earthquake prone pipe resting on the bottom of the Yakima.

The water main upgrade is so critical the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying for that part of the project.

Prosser too would see a drop of $100,000 or more in tab fee revenue if I-976 passes.

Prosser established its transportation district in 2009 and levied a $20 car tab fee until late 2018, when it rose to $25.

In July, the Prosser City Council approved a list of road projects paid for by car tab fees.

It intends to replace a section of Yakima Avenue in 2019, Margaret Street in 2020, Florence Street in 2021, Lillian Street in 2022, Alice Street in 2023 and Wine Country Road in 2024.

Those won’t happen if the I-976 takes effect with no replacement money, said Toni Yost, the city’s finance director.

Mayor Randy Taylor agreed.

“If we lose it, we’ll have to cut back on our repair and maintenance,” he said.

Taylor said Prosser’s low-traffic roads are in good shape but critical roads need work.

“Wine County Road is showing stress,” he said.

Why I-976 is on the ballot

The Eyman-led campaign submitted nearly 260,000 signatures to the 2019 Legislature, calling on it to roll back car tab fees and repeal or reduce many of the other charges that pay for state and local transportation.

The initiative qualified for the November 2019 ballot when the Legislature adjourned in April without taking action.

Ballotopedia reports the pro-976 campaign has raised nearly $690,000 and is supported by Voters Want More Choices and Permanent Offense.

Both are associated with Eyman, the anti-tax crusader who has brought numerous issues to voters with varying degrees of success and plenty of criticism.

The anti-976 campaign had raised $625,000 and is supported by Keep WA Rolling. Microsoft is its lead supporter with a $300,000 contribution, followed by $100,000 from the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc.

Transportation consultants Parametrix Inc. and HDR Engineering both contributed $25,000.

Eyman characterizes the initiative as a return to the $30 car tab fees Washington voters approved in 1999.

Opponents including the Sierra Club say the impact on mass transit will lead to more traffic congestion and harm cities and transportation projects across the state.