Richland drew a standing-room-only crowd this week after the city announced plans to form a transportation district and pay for it with a $20 car tab fee.
Dozens of citizens offered sharply divided views on the proposal during a public hearing and even challenged one reason for the new fee — the proposed $38 million Duportail Bridge.
Richland wasn’t the only city to wade into the politically charged concept this week. The Kennewick and Connell city councils also discussed transportation districts at their meetings.
The Connell City Council agreed to ask voters to approve a two-tenths of a percent sales tax in November’s general election.
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If approved, it will add two cents to a $10 purchase and would generate about $50,000 for street maintenance and construction. It previously considered and rejected a $15 car tab fee, which does not have to go to voters.
In Kennewick, the city council toyed with adding its support to Richland’s proposal in the form of a letter from Mayor Steve Young. In the end, the council voted unanimously to stay quiet.
Richland’s hourlong public hearing was the hottest of the three.
Four of seven city council members attended the sometimes testy session.
If approved, Richland’s Transportation Benefit District would be funded by a fee on the 40,000-plus vehicles registered to addresses in the city.
The tax would raise an estimated $850,000 a year and would repay bonds for the bridge, as well as pay for street maintenance around town before ending in 20 years.
Mayor Pro Tem Terry Christensen presided over the tense meeting, attended by council members Brad Anderson, Phillip Lemley and Dori Luzzo Gilmour. Mayor Bob Thompson and council members Sandra Kent and David Rose did not attend.
We are looking at $20 for 20 years, nothing more.
City Manager Cindy Reents
The council did not vote on the issue which can be passed without voter approval. A second hearing is planned in March.
Many of the more than 100 people attending questioned if the bridge is necessary, if the $20 fee increase is appropriate, if a toll makes more sense and if the plan is premature given President Trump’s talk of a national infrastructure spending program.
Others wondered if Richland will be tempted to increase the fee in the future, which Washington law allows.
City Manager Cindy Reents insisted Richland is committed to keeping the fee at $20. If approved, it will be local law and unchangeable except by a vote of a future council.
“We are looking at $20 for 20 years, nothing more,” she said.
Richland officials said they will use about $380,000 of the annual proceeds to repay bonds to cover the remaining $4 million it needs to build the bridge, which is mostly being paid for with money from a state gas tax and $2 million in federal dollars.
The bridge will provide a direct link for residents across the Yakima River, offering an alternative to Interstate 182.
The rest of the car tab money, about $510,000 a year, would go to pavement maintenance, increasing that annual budget by about 40 percent to $1.7 million.
Richland resident Armin Ward told the council that the bridge sounded like a good idea until the car license fees came up. The approach is unfair, he said.
Art Kelly, a Richland newcomer, said levying the car tab fee only on vehicles registered in Richland isn’t equitable. The region will benefit from the bridge and should pay for it, he said.
I think $20 is unreasonably high. It certainly is for my pocketbook.
Jane Frazier, Richland resident
He suggested the city charge businesses at Queensgate that stand to benefit from traffic flowing across Duportail.
Richland wants to put the transportation district and fee in place quickly so it can begin collecting money in 2018, steps it needs to take to qualify for the state money.
Jane Frazier, a long-time Richland resident, said she thought the bridge didn’t need local money, that the state transportation package would pay for it. She spoke for many when she said that she’s on a fixed income and can ill-afford the added expense.
“I think $20 is unreasonably high. It certainly is for my pocketbook,” she said.
But there were plenty supporters for the project, as well.
One woman said $20 a year is a bargain if it delivers a bridge and better streets.
This is the one opportunity you will have to get the state money for the Duportail Bridge.
John Fox, Richland resident
John Fox said the proposed amount is minor compared with the cost to own and operate a vehicle. He urged Richland to do what is necessary to secure the $20 million from the state.
“This is the one opportunity you will have to get the state money for the Duportail Bridge,” he said.
Lemley said he has mixed feelings about the car tab plan because he understands plenty of people earning minimum wage will be strapped by the fee.
“$20 is a big deal,” he said.
Councilman Brad Anderson is a long-standing advocate for the Duportail Bridge who said he’s regularly championed the project in Olympia every year since he was first elected in 2011.
If voters want to turn him out of office over it, he said, he would be happy to go down for the cause. “Every two years, you can vote out the majority of the council,” he noted.