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Car tab fees: King County sidesteps voters to avoid massive transit cuts

The King County Council voted 7-2 to approve an emergency Congestion Reduction Charge during an Aug. 15 meeting. King County residents will pay an extra $20 on their car tabs to help keep Metro bus services at current levels, as the agency continues to work on a financial plan for the troubled public transit system.

“This is a short-term fee, it’s a two-year fee. It provides us with time to go to work with the State of Washington to find long-term, sustainable funding for our system,” said Councilwoman Julia Patterson, who represents District Five. “This investment would preserve the existing levels of service hours that are currently in the system. Without this fee, we would lose approximately 9 million rides per year. We would put back approximately 15,000 cars on the roads each day.”

Councilman Larry Phillips said the council and Metro exhausted every avenue possible and were still short of meeting a severe budget shortfall.

“We have tapped and tapped and tapped our reserves,” he said. “What we can’t close after all of that hard work is a $60 million annual operating gap. If we aren’t able to take this next step, we would realize a 17 percent cut in service. Taking us back to 1996 levels and wiping out a decade and a half of growth, taking us in the opposite direction of where we need to be heading.”

Phillips said it boiled down to a simple choice: Massive transit cuts or approve an emergency, one-time, stop gap congestion charge on vehicles.

Reagan Dunn, one of the two council members who voted no, said he felt the democratic process was being sidestepped with the council’s actions on the Congestion Reduction Charge.

“I don’t like or support the process of forcing a tax on families with fixed incomes, on seniors with fixed incomes, especially in a down economy, without a vote of the people. It’s important for them to vote; it’s important in general for tax increases to be approved within a democracy,” he said. “The voters should have a say in this, and I think it’s very unfortunate they have been denied the right to do so tonight.”

Dunn also said the Aug. 15 vote just means the council and Metro will be right back where they started in two years.

“We must find a solution, and I hope that solution is not to put this car tab fee in perpetuity,” he said.

The other dissenting voter, councilman Pete Von Reichbauer, read a statement made by a fellow council member, although he declined to say which member it was. Some local media reports indicated the statement von Reichbauer read  was from a letter to the constituents of councilwoman Linda Hague, released earlier this summer. Hague had initially indicated her vote would be no on the Congestion Reduction Charge.

“Voters in this state have made it known through the initiative process that they wish to cap car tab fees. I respect that and I believe that altering this requires a vote of the people,” von Reichbauer read. “I agree with that statement.”

Besides the congestion reduction charge, a few other elements were added in the final package voted on by council members Aug. 15. One is the inclusion of bus “vouchers” to registered car owners. Car owners will receive eight passes to be used on Metro, with the thought that people might be willing to give the bus a chance with such vouchers. If they don’t use the vouchers, they can donate them to one of the county’s human services programs. The second amendment to the package is the abolition of “ride free” zones, which is to take effect in October 2012. Another extra element was for King County Metro to begin looking at using smaller buses on less utilized routes.

 

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