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Editorial: Best use of boost from car tab fee is on streets

The Spokane City Council took a responsible step on Monday to address the woeful state of city streets. But the four-member majority who approved a modest $20 car tab fee shouldn’t count on cheers.

There’s more likely to be a public outcry over the new expense, even from many of the same motorists who regularly decry potholes that rattle their fillings and ruts that turn steering into a rodeo event. Tax and fee hikes are always a hard sell.

But the $2.5 million that the tab fee could produce each year is seriously needed, because certain other street funding sources are flattening or declining. The city’s annual street expenditures have hardly varied in the past four years, although the real estate excise tax has dropped by more than half, from $3.16 million in 2007 to $1.45 million last year. Local motor vehicle fuel tax receipts have slipped only slightly in that time, but more erosion can be expected as efficient cars and cost-conscious drivers result in lower gasoline consumption.

Twenty dollars a year per vehicle is not an onerous burden to place on drivers, who cause wear and tear on the streets and benefit from upkeep – so long as the City Council remains faithful to that user-fee model.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the new funding source already has been weakened under a political compromise that earmarks 10 percent of the receipts for sidewalks. Sidewalks are important, but the real urgency involves streets, where disrepair is not merely an annoyance but also an economic and safety concern, measured in terms of vehicle repairs, accidents and impaired commerce.

Any new revenues should be an addition, not a replacement. The Legislature authorized local governments to form transportation benefit districts as a way to fund unmet local street and highway needs. Under the power granted to such districts, the council approved the car tab fee.

Under present economic pressures, the council will be tempted to apply new receipts to existing expenditures and free current funding for other general fund programs. In other words, taxing motorists alone for the routine costs of everyone’s city government.

That’s a temptation to be resisted. Yielding to it would betray the public trust, which is thin to begin with.

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