County Executive’s budget includes $20 car tab fee for unincorporated areas

King County Executive Dow Constantine has put forward a $684 million spending plan for the 2013 fiscal year, a budget that he says includes millions of dollars in efficiencies and cost reductions without sparing services.

But declining revenue to support the county’s vast system of roads has led the executive to seek a $20 vehicle license fee in the unincorporated swaths of the county, which includes Vashon Island. Seattle residents currently pay such a fee.

“The fee won’t be enough, not by a long shot. … But it can help with critical safety and maintenance needs and keep some crews serving the public. And it’s the only remaining authority we have,” he told the King County Council during his budget address on Sept. 24.

The $20 fee — levied by way of a Transportation Benefit District — would bring in $4.5 million a year, not nearly enough to address a shortfall that the executive’s office puts at between $50 million and $60 million to care for the county’s 1,500-mile road system.

“The system for funding local transportation in Washington state is broken,” Constantine added in his address. “Everyone knows it.”

Councilmember Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the county council and will lead the council’s budget deliberations, said he supports Constantine’s call for the car tab fee, noting that the funds it raises will go into road maintenance in unincorporated King County.

“It won’t solve the problem. It’ll help to stem the tide. But it won’t turn the tide,” he said in an interview Friday.

The county has struggled mightily with its roads and transportation budget in recent years, a financial crisis created by declining revenue for county roads without a commensurate decline in the miles of roads it’s expected to maintain and replace. Declining property values and a decline in gas tax revenues, due in part to more fuel-efficient vehicles, have meant fewer tax dollars for the county’s Road Fund.

Annexations have also taken a toll: With more of unincorporated King County getting swallowed up into cities, the county’s revenue base for its roads has shrunk, even while it’s expected to care for nearly the same miles of roads.

“Roads only get worse as we do more annexations,” McDermott said.

All told, the Roads Fund has fallen by 20 percent in the last four years, from $122 million in 2010 to $98 million in 2013.

The county is still moving forward on its five-tiered road system, a plan to maintain only those roads in the unincorporated area that are considered main arterials. Other roads would get little to no maintenances and could even face permanent closures.

A car tab fee in the unincorporated parts of the county “won’t delay the five-tiered system,” McDermott said. “But it would put more money into the overall system,” enabling the tiered plan to stay into effect, he added.

The budget now goes to the county council, which will hold three public hearings on the spending plan — one today in Kent, another on Oct. 10 in Bellevue and a final one on Oct. 17 in Seattle. Day-after coverage of the public hearings will be available both online and on King County TV, seen on Comcast and Broadstripe Cable Channel 22.


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