Local news

$20 car tab tax on the table

If Spokane residents want a completed freeway north from Interstate 90, they’ll have to pay.

That’s the growing consensus from state leaders as city and county officials contemplate ways to fund the southern portion of the 10-mile North Spokane Corridor.

That could mean putting a $20 tax on annual car tabs in Spokane County, as will be contemplated by county leaders next week; placing a toll on the highway, as suggested by Gov. Chris Gregoire; or some other fee or tax paid by locals.

It’s not yet known how much of the $1.5 billion needed for the remaining parts of the project will have to be raised in Spokane County. But state leaders say there’s little doubt that they’ll require a local contribution.

Expensive highway and bridge projects across the state, such as the state Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington, will need local participation, said state Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane.

“This is not a Spokane-centric discussion,” he said. “We’re going to have to find out how we’re going to compete in the system we have today. Let’s find a way to leverage a state investment in the corridor.”

But state Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, argues that the state should not expect local taxes to support the Spokane freeway. He points to the state’s gas tax and says too much of it has been sucked into projects west of the Cascades. Voters won’t support new taxes for the freeway, he said.

“You’re going to have a tough road to hoe on that one,” Ahern predicted. “We need to get more respect from the West Side of the state.”

On Tuesday, Spokane County commissioners will consider the tab tax option. Raising money through a $20 annual license plate tab tax has support among some city officials – but not necessarily for the freeway. Facing increasing challenges with road work, there’s debate about whether a new tab tax should be used, at least in part, to repave existing streets.

Creation of a north Spokane freeway has been a struggle for decades, first as it was fought by local residents and later as the community tried to persuade state and federal leaders to pay for it.

The freeway is almost fully funded between Francis Avenue and U.S. 395, and a significant portion is scheduled to open early next year. The $532 million allocated to the corridor so far has come from state and federal taxes. The most expensive section – at $1.5 billion – is unfunded. That’s the portion between I-90 and Francis Avenue.

“We struggle with the idea of this leap of (requiring) local participation for what is a federal highway,” said Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard. But he added he’ll continue pushing for completion of the freeway “even if that means we have to buck up and do something locally.”

Some city officials are willing to consider a countywide tab tax to prime the pump for the North Side freeway.

Councilman Al French said he could support some of the tax being earmarked for the highway, but added that the public may not support the fee unless some of it is used to show immediate results by fixing roads.

“It is a reasonable request to say local dollars should be part of the solution to pay for (the corridor),” French said.

But Spokane City Councilman Richard Rush points to the city’s potholes as an indication that all of a tab tax should be used for existing streets.

“The state is giving us an excellent opportunity to take care of a problem we’ve had for decades,” Rush said.

County Commissioner Bonnie Mager said the tab tax would raise about $7 million a year, “which isn’t very much of match to go toward the north-south freeway.

“We were all looking for that money to go toward local projects.”

Counties and cities have been allowed to charge fees on tabs since 1987, but they couldn’t impose the taxes without voter approval until the Legislature amended the law last year. The rules say local government can collect as much as $20 a year per vehicle without voter approval. They could charge $100 with voter approval.

Spokane Valley City Council members agreed Tuesday to tell county commissioners they need more information before they take a position. One of the council’s unanswered questions is whether cities could participate in a regional tab tax district and each collect different levels of tax. Also, council members wonder how to withdraw from the program if it proved unsatisfactory.

“That’s one of the problems in coming up with a position for the county,” Mayor Richard Munson said. “We just don’t have enough information.”

Councilwoman Diana Wilhite said Spokane and Spokane Valley officials were reluctant to commit to the tax – especially if all the money were to go to the North Side freeway – during a recent Greater Spokane Incorporated conference call involving state and local leaders and a representative of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

The group discussed asking voters for a $40 or $50 vehicle fee “so they have the ability to say yes or no,” she said. However, the Association of Washington Cities says nothing would prevent a public vote – binding or advisory – on a fee of $20 or less.

Marr is pushing local leaders to slow down to formulate a regional plan that they can take to the Legislature next year when it considers new transportation funding. The Legislature could pass laws during its current session that would assist the creation of local matching money. For instance, he said the state could create rules that would earmark sales taxes spent on products purchased for the project to be diverted to pay for the construction cost.

“That tool may not be the right tool to use right now,” Marr said. “I don’t know what the rush is.”

Gregoire spokesman Mike Gowrylow said the governor considers the freeway a “priority project.”

“She has asked the Department of Transportation to study funding options, including tolling,” Gowrylow said. “Tolling could be part of the package, but that hasn’t been decided yet.”

Marr and other local leaders say a toll on the road likely wouldn’t work because drivers simply would avoid the freeway.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke questions if the state has fully lived up to past funding commitments for the freeway, but he added, “I do believe that in today’s world, local communities are going to have to participate.”

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