Our Voice: Richland bridge worth the car tab fee

By Tri-City Herald Editorial Board

Duportail Bridge.
Duportail Bridge.

Richland City Council members will have their mettle tested Tuesday night.

That’s when they meet to consider imposing a $20 car tab fee to cover the final amount needed to build the Duportail Bridge.

While the proposal surely will be opposed by many residents, it’s the best way to get this important project going. City council members need to find the courage to stand up to any resistance and approve the plan.

Building the Duportail Bridge across the Yakima River has been a civic priority for Richland for at least a decade. The benefits of linking central Richland with the booming Queensgate area have been touted for years.

A transportation study showed that the bridge would create millions of dollars in private investments for the city within 10 years of being built and would add nearly $200,000 in sales and property tax revenue within 20 years.

In addition, the bridge would help alleviate the worst traffic congestion in the Tri-Cities by taking thousands of vehicles off Interstate 182 and routing them through Queensgate and Richland’s central business district.

Having an additional route also will vastly improve emergency response times, which is critical when seconds count.

But these benefits won’t happen unless the city can raise another $4 million. That’s why city officials are considering the $20 licensing fee.

Washington law allows cities and counties to form transportation districts, which are quasi-municipal corporations that can raise money for specific projects. They are usually funded through vehicle license fees or sales taxes.

A sales tax, though, must be approved by voters — which has traditionally been a hard sell in the Tri-Cities. But imposing a fee on car tabs is allowed with city council approval.

There are an estimated 40,000 vehicles registered in Richland and charging an extra $20 would raise enough money annually to help cover the cost of the bridge, as well as bump up the city’s street maintenance budget.

About 90 cities and counties around the state have created transportation districts, and nearly 60 have imposed the vehicle licensing fee — including Prosser, Toppenish and Wenatchee.

It makes sense that Richland would consider this avenue as well. It keeps the money locally and designates it for a specific purpose. The fee would sunset after 20 years.

Some Richland residents already have complained that it isn’t fair for them to pay the extra fee when drivers from across the Tri-Cities use the roads during their commute to Hanford.

Their frustration is understandable.

Richland Mayor Bob Thompson said he would love to have a larger group help pay for the bridge, and adding the $20 licensing fee in Richland is a “hard thing to ask, but it needs to be done.”

There is no better alternative, and this is a well thought-out solution to a tough problem.

The cost to build the bridge is $38 million, and city officials want to hire a contractor later this year so construction can begin in 2018.

Most of the money is coming from $20 million the Legislature earmarked in 2015. The rest is coming from the state Transportation Improvement Board, the state Department of Transportation and city reserves.

But the city is still $4 million short. Richland city officials are so close to making this project happen, they shouldn’t hesitate now.

The Feb. 21 public hearing begins at 7:30 p.m. at Richland City Hall.