SEATTLE – It is not a car museum, but Rob Greenlee’s driveway does shine a small light on the automobile’s evolution. He owns three different cars – gas-powered, hybrid and electric – and already pays about $500 a year total to renew his car tabs.
He realizes it could someday jump by hundreds more.
“It seems a little expensive to me,” Greenlee said.
With crumbling roads and shrinking transit service causing headaches across the state, transportation funding is in high demand. Some policymakers think car-tab fees and taxes could be one of the best sources for new transportation dollars.
Until the year 2000, drivers did pay more thanks to something called the motor vehicle excise tax – or MVET. But voters got rid of the tax by approving a Tim Eyman-backed initiative, putting a big dent in funding for roads and transit.
Earlier this year, Judy Clibborn, the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, suggested bringing back a statewide MVET, requiring drivers to pay 0.7 percent of their car’s value annually.
For Greenlee – owner of three cars – that would mean paying about $300 more a year. He admits that he could handle the payments, but he fears many others could not.
“I just think it’s going to drive a lot of people out of their cars that maybe can’t afford to have a car,” Greenlee said. “It’s going to difficult for a lot of people to pay those kind of fees.
The idea of a statewide MVET has drawn a lot of criticism.
“This is a creeping effort to try to crank up the tax on cars, which the public has clearly said, ‘Enough is enough,’” said Paul Guppy with the Washington Policy Center.
The odds of it passing now seem slim.
“I haven’t given up on it,” Clibborn told KING 5 in March. “But I have been pretty well told by a number of people that they just can’t vote for it.”
Still, lawmakers could give local governments some options for raising car-tab fees and taxes. A coalition of King County leaders has asked lawmakers for permission to charge an additional MVET as high as 1.5 percent. (King County currently has a 0.3 percent MVET.)
That would cost Greenlee an extra $600 a year for all three of his cars.
State representative Mark Liias is pushing for some of these local options to help transit agencies maintain service and help local transportation departments maintain roads.
“I think coming up with proposals that go to the voters is a good check-and-balance on making sure we’re spending public dollars wisely,” Liias said.
But would voters even approve such a thing? In 2011, Seattle voters rejected a $60 hike in car-tab fees.
Rob Johnson with the Transportation Choice coalition argued that was too regressive.
“You’re paying $60 for your 1984 Honda Civic, like your neighbor is paying $60 for his new-model Lexus,” he said.
He think an MVET, which is tied to car values, would stand a better chance.
“We’ve got a really good track record in King County of supporting local transportation funds to pay for transit service.”
For Greenlee, all of this would be on top of the annual $100 electric-car fee he just started paying. Plus, lawmakers are considering a $75 hybrid fee.
He understands that drivers probably do need to pay more for their car tabs to keep the roads in working order and keep bus riders from jumping in their cars and creating congestion. But he wants to be smart about how it is done.
“Our investment in what we’re going to spend money on really needs to get crisp and clear, and everybody needs to buy off on it,” Greenlee said.