On Feb 21, Richland city councilmembers will discuss their desire to create a Transportation Benefit District (TBD) and charge an annual $20 vehicle license fee to fund two major local transportation projects – constructing the Duportail Bridge and funding the Pavement Preservation Program.
The bulk of money for Duportail Bridge ($20 million) will be provided by the state. City officials say they need an additional $17.6 million to create four total vehicle travel lanes, with bike lanes and sidewalks on each side.
The Pavement Preservation Program has an existing budget of $1.2 million, but City officials say they need $3 to $3.5 million annually to maintain 575 lane miles of streets within its borders. The hope is that funding road maintenance will increase travel times and safety for the traveling public.
Both projects are valuable for local residents. They would increase mobility and traffic safety, and would directly benefit drivers who pay the fee. In that sense, the Richland proposal is a breath of fresh air, as drivers in Seattle pay fees and taxes that are then funneled to transit agencies.
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However, Richland can do more in this process to cultivate transparency, democracy, and trust between Richland families and city officials.
Although state law allows the creation of transportation benefit districts and the levying of up to $20 without a public vote, a voter referendum would be a more appropriate route. Public officials are not automatically entitled to our money. They must ask for it. They must demonstrate that they will spend transportation dollars wisely on projects that increase mobility without any artificial costs.
Furthermore, an extra $20 car tab fee should be considered in context with what residents already pay to the state. For example, a Richland resident with a typical car already pays the state an annual $30 license renewal fee, $45 weight fee, $3 registration filing fee, $5 registration service fee, 25-cent license plate technology fee, and a 50-cent service fee to the Department of Licensing. That’s a total of $83.75 in fees for one car. With the proposed Richland vehicle fee, this resident would pay a combined $103.75 in vehicle fees, a 24 percent fee increase.
The $20 may be an isolated funding source for the city, but it’s just another tax to the ordinary hard-working taxpayer, even if they see value in the road projects their $20 will pay for.
Richland officials have a significant opportunity to model honest and accountable government by engaging the public and allowing people to vote on the $20 car tab fee in November. This is democratic, and would reduce the sense that funding decisions are made regardless of public input.
No matter how councilmembers choose to proceed, they can create a degree of revenue neutrality in the new fee by cutting sales tax revenue for Ben Franklin Transit by just 0.1 percent, which the agency clearly does not need. Their ridership continues to decline at an alarming rate while sales tax revenue has increased 442 percent between 1996 and 2015, along with increased salaries and benefits. There is no need to take so much money from Richland families and businesses for a shrinking public service, especially at a time when the city has a pressing need for better roads and bridges that would benefit drivers, bicyclists, transit riders and pedestrians.
Mariya Frost is the Director of the Coles Center for Transportation at Washington Policy Center, with four offices around the state including Tri-Cities. More information at www.washingtonpolicy.org.