Councilmember O'Brien left office on December 31, 2019. This website is for archival purposes only and is no longer updated.

Why I support an $80 Vehicle License Fee

10 Comments (Leave Comment)

The Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) is considering asking you, the voters of Seattle, to approve an $80 increase on your vehicle license fee (aka, “car tabs”). I firmly believe additional revenue is needed to not only maintain Seattle’s transportation infrastructure, but to expand it to provide improve mobility for all residents in Seattle.

Investments we make to improve mobility for people and goods throughout Seattle also bring social and economic benefits. New revenue provides Council with opportunities to advance transportation projects that will provide greater benefit to Seattle’s lower-income communities that rely more heavily on public transit and walking to get around, and that would experience a greater burden from the increased vehicle license fee.

I’ve asked the city demographer to look into data about income levels and car ownership.  What I learned was that of the roughly 18% of households (or about 48,000 households) in Seattle live below 150% of the federal poverty level (150% FPL is $33,525 for a family of four). Among those households, 40% do not own a vehicle and will not be burdened by the increased fee—in fact they are more likely to rely on public transportation and walking to get around and will benefit from the investments we make with additional revenue.



For the other 60% of households below $150% FPL who do own cars, they are likely spending significant portions of their income to own and operate their car. These households will feel the burden of the increased fee, and we need to look for ways to mitigate these impacts, but smart investments can transit use more accessible and, over time, could allow low-income households to reduce the amount of income they spend on their vehicle.

At the same time, an additional $80 fee each year for owning a vehicle could have a significant and burdensome impact (the fee is regressive, but the state hasn’t granted Seattle authority to scale the cost of car tabs to the value of the vehicle, that is, to impose a “motor vehicle excise tax” instead of a vehicle license fee). So I will be working with the City Council, the Mayor and our city departments to identify some way we can lessen some of the burden of the increased fee on our lowest-income residents.

I think everyone on the City Council agrees that we need additional revenue to preserve and strengthen our transportation infrastructure in Seattle. We have some discretion over how much we ask voters to approve and some of my colleagues on the Council feel like $80 is too high and that we need to look at a lower increase, maybe $40 or even $60.

I know we are in a sustained recession and I know many families in Seattle are struggling week to week to get by. But I also know those families are more likely to rely on public transit and can benefit from the projects that this new revenue will bring Seattle. And having looked at the numbers and thinking about the projects we could fund, I fully believe that $80 is the right amount to ask of voters—even in these difficult economic times.

I am confident we can do this in a way that advances our shared goal of preserving and improving our transportation system while also mitigating the impacts on families struggling the hardest to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. We can make it easier and safer to get to work, school or the doctor, and I believe everyone in Seattle would like the sound of that.



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Comment from Rik
Time August 8, 2011 at 7:11 pm

47% of households pay no federal income taxes. Those who pay no federal income tax should shoulder the burden of paying for public transit. Statistically, primary ridership of public transportation has household income of $30,000. Those with higher income don’t use public transit. Those who use the service should shoulder the cost.

Comment from Graham
Time August 8, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Why not take a 50% pay cut to directly fund the programs you desire?

Comment from Devin Glaser
Time August 8, 2011 at 8:33 pm

This revenue is estimated to bring in $27.2 million annually. Even if all 9 council members gave up their pay entirely, they wouldn’t come close.

I support the $80 car tab fee and hope it passes. And for those rich enough to own four cars – I’m sure you’ll appreciate the lack of potholes and poor people traffic on your roads.

Comment from Concerned Citizen
Time August 9, 2011 at 1:10 am

Mike, I’d like to see a breakdown of all the current taxes, fees, and costs you and the City currently burden us tax payers with. I think we would all be shocked by the amount we already pay for SDOT and other related projects. Let’s see those statistics posted accurately reflecting *all* taxes/fees and then, we the citizens of Seattle, can make an educated and informed decision. Take that a step further and share with us all the specifics of current transportation projects the city has including SDOT’s entire budget; what percentage of those dollars make it out of the administrative bureaucracy and are actually turned into pavement, bike lanes, buses, etc. Make certain existing dollars are spent *very* wisely before asking us for more.

Comment from Morgan
Time August 10, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I can’t find a job. Paying another fee just makes me laugh. You’ll end up with a bunch of unregistered cars on the road.

Comment from Jon Morgan
Time August 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm

The recommended package spends just 20% of the revenue ($5.4 million per year) on bike and ped projects combined. Our bike and ped master plans have more than $1 billion in identified, unfunded needs. At our current rates, it’s going to take us something like 800 years to fill our sidewalk backlog–not counting maintenance. As you note, lower income people rely more on walking. This package needs to spend more on bike and ped improvements. We need sidewalks more than a new streetcar extension–how can people get to and from transit without good bike and ped connections?

I don’t see how the regressive impact of the $80 VLF (plus $20 already enacted plus $20 from Metro, plus the Sound Transit fee) on low-income people is being mitigated here. How about a sales tax on gas instead? How about a serious housing levy, a serious definition of affordable housing, and inclusionary zoning? I fear we’re gentrifying the urban core further while pushing out low-income people. That’s not the Seattle I want.

Comment from Jon Morgan
Time August 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Let’s talk about what we should be doing for these folks:

Comment from JK
Time August 11, 2011 at 4:01 am

Mr. O’Brien — It seems you have an attitude that an extra $80 just isn’t that much and we should all cut back on our lattes and suck it up. Well: You’ve already added $20, and the county council might add another $20. Then you add $80, and now the tabs I normally pay have been more than doubled. For people who live paycheck to paycheck, that is a HUGE hit on the pocketbook and it will be very difficult.

I doubt you truly understand the budget of the average working person.

Comment from Debby Norman
Time August 13, 2011 at 1:15 am

So you’re just sure the STBD will find ways to mitigate the burden of a $100 increase in car tabs on the 60 percent of the city’s poor who own cars.

Even though the STBD has shown absolutely no interest in mitigation. Even though the fee increases include no income sliding scale.

No one even raised the subject of mitigation before this assault on the poor was proposed. Do you seriously think anyone will do so after it’s enacted?

You’re assuring us, on zero evidence, that there will be mitigation. How many mitigation proposals have you even studied so far?

I thought so.


Comment from Seattle Resident
Time September 29, 2011 at 7:39 am

Mr. O’Brien, you’ve just given me a strong reason to vote against you the next time you run.

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