The Vancouver City Council has voted to oppose Initiative 976, a statewide ballot measure that would limit the authority of cities to collect vehicle fees.
If the initiative passes in the Nov. 5 general election, the city would lose more than half of the $9.03 million it needs annually to carry out its street funding strategy. But the losses would likely be higher than that, said Ryan Lopossa, the city’s streets and transportation manager, because Vancouver would also lose out on grants for transportation projects that require a local match.
“To put things in perspective, in 2018 we garnered about $8.5 million in grant funding,” Lopossa said. “We’d really lose the ability to chase those grants.”
Currently, more than half of the city’s annual street funding comes from its transportation benefit district, paid for by Vancouver’s annual $40 vehicle license fee and totaling $4.8 million. The remaining $4.23 million in streets funds comes from utility taxes ($1.85 million), the business license surcharge ($850,000), the state gas tax ($500,000) and debt reduction service for existing transportation bonds ($1 million).
If passed, I-976 would remove the authority of Washington’s local transportation districts to collect vehicle license fees. It would cap annual license fees for vehicles under 10,000 pounds at $30, unless voters in a local municipality approve an increase in a separate ballot measure.
“The $30 that it would limit it to would essentially go right back to the state. There’s not a piece of that the city would receive,” Lopossa said.
Additionally, I-976 would remove the state’s $150 fee on electric vehicles, repeal authorization for regional transit authorities like Sound Transit to impose motor vehicle excise taxes, and eliminate the 0.33 percent tax on vehicle sales. Under the initiative, any future vehicle sales taxes would be based on the Kelley Blue Book value rather than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.
In their unanimous vote last week, the councilors said they fear the measure would kneecap the city’s ability to fully fund its street improvement programs.
“The city of Vancouver has a lot to lose, and this is definitely something we want to have a voice on,” said Mayor Pro Tem Bart Hansen.
When it comes to communicating their opposition to I-976 to the public, Vancouver’s leaders can’t openly lobby against the ballot measure without running afoul of Public Disclosure Commission regulations. But Lopossa said the city “can provide factual information” about how losing the vehicle license fee would affect its roads.
Making a formal condemnation against a state ballot measure is highly unusual for the nonpartisan governing body. The council hasn’t taken a similar action since 2010, when then-Mayor Tim Leavitt urged the group to oppose two liquor privatization initiatives.
What does the TBD pay for?
This year, the $4.8 million in transportation district funds is split between six projects.
Southeast First Street, which runs east-west from Hearthwood Boulevard to the eastern border of the city, is due for $1 million worth of work, as well as an additional $2 million set aside for a local grant match.
Citywide, $1 million will go to the pavement preservation program, $500,000 to multimodal safety projects for pedestrians and cyclists, $200,000 to replace lighting and traffic signals, and $100,000 for projects in partnership with the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Alliance.
“In the years since we’ve had our street funding strategy, we’ve been able to greatly enhance our pavement management program, not only keeping up with the arterials but also getting into the neighborhood streets,” Lopossa said.
Losing the TBD funds would effectively end the Southeast First Street project, Lopossa said. The loss would also result in a 25 percent reduction for the pavement preservation program, a 50 percent reduction for lighting and signal replacement, and a 37 percent reduction in neighborhood safety projects. The multimodal safety program would be eliminated.
“We’ll lose the funding that we currently have to advance those smaller-scoped bike and pedestrian projects,” Lopossa said.
Support for I-976
The initiative was spearheaded by Tim Eyman, a conservative Washington activist who’s spent the last few decades shepherding more than a dozen transportation and tax-related initiatives onto voter ballots. Mike Fagan, a city councilor in Spokane, is also a primary supporter.
The initiative was certified in January after gathering enough signatures. On his website, permanentoffense.com, Eyman writes that 352,000 people supported I-976.
“I-976 caps vehicle registration costs at $30 per year for everyone in the state (cars, light trucks, SUVs, & other vehicles) and gets rid of state and local taxes and fees on vehicles,” the website states, adding that the initiative “prohibits state and local govts. from imposing dishonest vehicle taxes.”