The return of the car tab tax

Recent scene from a changing island:

You drive to the supermarket and pull your grimy, 10-year-old pickup into a parking space next to a guy with a flashy new BMW roadster. You look over and gaze appreciatively at his car, while he gets out with his kid and hikes up to the market door....then stops at the threshold, turns and shoots you a long and baleful glare.

Your first thought if you’re, say, the editor of the local newspaper: “So that’s what a year’s salary looks like.” Your second and third: you didn’t used to see so many gaudy rides on Bainbridge back in the day; neither would you have seen an owner look back over his shoulder to make sure you didn’t ding his door. Back when the phrase “my island car” was still in circulation – understood to mean the beater you ran errands in, a car that started most of the time but looked less than kempt and might not comply with all applicable laws – dings were part of the local aesthetic. Those days, alas, are gone.

The parking lot moment came to mind Monday evening, as the city administration rolled out the mayor’s draft budget for 2008. Among the potential revenue streams – it’s not yet in the budget, but it should be – is a local excise tax on vehicle registration. Recent legislation out of Olympia allows cities and counties to impose their own “car tab” tax of up to $20 by a vote of the council, or up to $100 by a vote of the public, to pay for local transportation projects. Even a lowball $20 charge would bring in about $400,000 per year on Bainbridge Island, city Finance Director Elray Konkel says – funds that could be spent on pay-as-you-go projects, or leveraged into perhaps $5 million in bonds for big-ticket improvements.

The council should consider the tax, not least because islanders have already endorsed it. Think back to 1999, when Washington voters passed Tim Eyman’s I-695, thus scrapping the state’s value-based Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in favor of flat $30 car tabs. Correctly perceiving that killing the MVET would play havoc with ferry funding – boy, did it – Bainbridge Islanders opposed the initiative by fully 73 percent. That is, we said we were willing to pay more to register our own cars if it meant better transportation for all.

Our priorities haven’t changed. Consider local parking fees, of which 50 percent are now, by city policy, dedicated to non-motorized transportation projects, the other 50 percent to general road maintenance. Might we not do the same thing with a local motor vehicle licensing tax? By design, vehicle owners would have the assurance that their money’s going somewhere useful – roadways for those contributing to congestion, bikeways and pathways for those who aren’t – and not just disappearing into the general fund.

Tacking an extra $20 onto the vehicle tab fee won’t bring back the glory days of the value-based MVET, when those of us stuck driving “island cars” at least had the satisfaction of knowing that those with flashy roadsters were paying way more to register them. (Heh heh.) But what’s another couple of sawbucks among neighbors? Even with your BMW, you’re still ahead.

And don’t mind us if we pause to admire your slick ride. That’s why you bought it, and it’s as close as we’ll ever get.

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