Seattle council proposes raising car tab fees to address underfunded bridge maintenance

Nov 16, 2020, 12:13 PM | Updated: 12:13 pm
Bridge maintenance...
University Bridge and I-5. (Photo courtesy of SDOT Flickr)
(Photo courtesy of SDOT Flickr)

Seattle councilmembers unveiled an addition to the 2021 budget last week, which would raise car tab fees for the city’s residents by $20 to fund much-needed bridge maintenance operations.

A recent report published by the city auditor estimates that Seattle should be spending between $34 million and $102 million annually to meet engineering standards for bridge maintenance. Currently, the city spends roughly $10 million to that effect. By raising a vehicle licensing fee from $20 to $40, councilmembers estimate the city could raise an additional $3.6 million.

Audit finds Seattle doesn’t spend enough money on bridge maintenance

“Underfunding our bridge infrastructure increases the risk of harm and ends up costing taxpayers more later, so let’s listen to the independent audit and increase bridge maintenance now to keep our people and economy moving,” Seattle council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen said in a written release.

While the city auditor’s report concluded that reduced spending on maintenance wasn’t the direct cause of the closure of the West Seattle Bridge, it noted that “the condition of the City’s bridges has worsened over the last 10 years.”

It also pointed out that the current situation with the West Seattle Bridge represents “an example of the strain imposed on the transportation network” when a bridge needs to be shut down suddenly for repairs.

Gov. Inslee open to reforming car tab system in Washington state

As SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield points out, city council is able to unilaterally raise car tab fees thanks to authority granted to it by the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD), operating as the nine members of its governing board.

The last time the council used its authority to raise the city’s car tab fees was in 2010, when it OKed a $20 license fee. Tim Eyman’s I-976 car tab measure would have invalidated that fee, before it was struck down by the state Supreme Court in October.

Adding in the new fee, as well as proposed increases by Mayor Durkan and the council, the city’s bridge maintenance funding would increase to $18 million in 2021. And while that’s short of the $34 million minimum called for by the city auditor, it still “represents an incremental increase to begin meeting a clear need,” according to city officials.

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Seattle council proposes raising car tab fees to address underfunded bridge maintenance