UP #312 The $60 Vehicle License Fee Vote

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Urban Politics #312, August 22, 2011

By City Councilmember Nick Licata

with assistance from my L.A. Newell Aldrich




On August 17, the Seattle Transportation Benefit District Board (STBD), which consists of Seattle City Councilmembers, unanimously voted to place a measure on the November ballot for a $60 vehicle license fee. It would run for 10 years, and raise $204 million.

The funds would be divided as follows: 29% for repair, maintenance and preservation, 49% for transit, and 22% for bicycle and pedestrian uses, with a small portion dedicated to finalizing a freight master plan. This is in line with the recommendations of the Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee, created by Resolution 31240 to “advise the Council on transportation funding alternatives and priorities.”

The state legislature authorized local jurisdictions to approve a $20 fee without a public vote, and up to $80 with a public vote. Previously the STBD authorized the $20 fee. This vote was to determine whether to pursue a portion or the entire $80 additional fee.

The Mayor suggested a permanent $80 vehicle license fee as a potential match for federal funds for construction of transit lines. With no lines selected, I believe that would be premature; secondly, given how the license fee funds are used for a variety of projects, additional explanation would be needed on the ballot as to what proportion of the fee would be needed for rail. The Mayor provided no specifics on how the fee revenue was to be dispersed.

Meanwhile the City faces a significant maintenance backlog, and funding gap for plans, as follows:

Road maintenance backlog: $600 million

Pedestrian Master Plan: $840 million

Bicycle Master Plan: $240 million

Earlier this year, when the city obtained $20 million through a property sale, I recommended dedicating funding to fixing roads. SDOT agreed to dedicate $3 million to road repairs. The city clearly continues to face a major maintenance bill and it will only get larger the longer we ignore it.


With that perspective in mind, I proposed an amendment to limit planning money to two fixed rail projects until they are completed: connecting the two streetcar lines, and extending the First Hill line (funded by Sound Transit) to Aloha Street on Capitol Hill, to better connect to the future light rail station. I wanted a clear focus on where the money would be spent.

The amendment failed by a 3 (Bagshaw, Harrell and Licata) to 6 vote. Still, the 10-year spending plan lists only those two rail projects for design and analysis. As the legislation is currently worded, I am still concerned that the allocation could be altered by future votes of the Board. Fortunately the funds allocated to these two planning projects account for only 4% of the total measure, so that the rest of the funds will be going to improve our larger bus transportation system along with improving the condition of our roads and sidewalks to facilitate easier travel by vehicle, bike and for pedestrians.


Transit funding in the ballot measure includes corridor, speed and reliability improvements for the bus system, electric trolley bus expansion projects, transit access projects, and some funding for planning. Estimates are $4 or $5 million could be dedicated to 8-10 transit corridors for speed, reliability and access improvements.

The City is revising its Transit Master Plan, which is examining numerous high-travel transit corridors. The Plan has focused on 15 throughout Seattle. 12 are recommended for analysis for various bus service improvements, and three for additional analysis for rail.

The plan is due at the end of the year. The transit funding in the vehicle license fee can implement some of the less-expensive bus improvements, as noted above, but aren’t sufficient for constructing the two rail lines.


The Council also passed Resolution 31315, introduced by Councilmember O’Brien, “to identify how the city can mitigate the adverse impacts of the increased fee on low-income residents of Seattle” by February 2012. I strongly supported this legislation.  I am also encouraging the Council to look at adopting a system similar to what King County has done, which is to provide those who pay the vehicle license fee the opportunity to receive metro vouchers or to donate them to human services agencies that serve low income persons.

The resolution also states the Council’s intent to pursue state legislative changes to allow Seattle “to fund Seattle’s transportation needs through a more equitable source of revenue than is currently available under state law.”











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