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King County has chance to raise money for transit, rural roads

King County Metro bus.

The King County Council could find its ability boosted to increase vehicle-related taxes without a public ballot under a bill introduced this week in the Washington Senate.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, introduced a bill Tuesday that would:

  • Increase the license renewal fee that the King County County Council can levy without a public ballot from $20 to $40 per year. Currently, King County does not levy such a fee, although Seattle and some other King County cities do. King County does have a $20 per vehicle fee as a congestion reduction charge that was installed in 2010 and is scheduled to expire in mid-2014.
  • Allow the county council to levy a motor vehicle excise tax of up to 1.5 percent of a vehicle's value — except for trucks weighing more than 3 tons empty, farm vehicles and commercial trailers. Right now, the King County Council and its counterparts elsewhere in Washington can levy a 0.2 percent sale tax by going through a public ballot.

The Senate Transportation Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on Murray's bill, agreeing to waive a five-day waiting period between that bill's introduction and its hearing because the cut-off date for such hearings is Friday. The bill addresses only King County.

The King County government — along with the cities of Seattle, Renton, Redmond, Kent and Shoreline — supported the bill, as did some transportation groups, labor organizations and college student interests. Auto dealer groups and the Association of Washington Business opposed it.

A $40 license renewal fee would raise $9 million for rural King County and $37 million for its cities, said Harold Taniguchi, director of the King County Department of Transportation. "Now's the time for investment, we cannot afford to wait," Taniguchi said.

No calculations have been done yet on a 1.5 percent motor vehicle excise tax. The bill calls for 60 percent of that tax to go to public transit, with 40 percent going to roads. King County Metro Transit handled 115 million passengers in 2012, and it estimates that the service keeps 175,000 cars off the county's roads each weekday. About 60 percent of King County Metro's budget comes from sales taxes. In 2012, Metro's operating budget was $642.5 million while the capital budget was roughly $365.5 million. Without new revenue, Metro expects its operating budget to drop 17 percent by late 2014.

Seattle City Council President Sally Clark cited the costs of maintaining the county's s roads and the need for public transit to keep additional cars off those roads as reasons for supporting the new tax-levying powers for King County. t "The only way (we're) going to create capacity on the roads is to lure people out of their cars and on to the bus,"Clark said.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said, "This is not luring people out of their cars, but forcing them out of their cars."

Scott Hazelgrove of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association argued that these taxes would discourage people from buying cars, which would have a ripple effect of the local governments also losing sales tax revenue from those car sales.

Duke Schaub of the Associated General Contractors of Washington worried about King County residents facing these new taxes in the near future, which might sour them on more transportation-related taxes later. He suggested meshing the taxes in Murray's bill into a bigger, more comprehensive package of transportation taxes and improvements.

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