$20 car tab fee for rural Thurston County residents?

If every resident in unincorporated Thurston County paid an extra $20 on their vehicle tabs, an estimated $1.8 million a year could be raised for rural transportation projects, according to a proposal being considered by the Board of County Commissioners.

The three-member board will have a public hearing Tuesday to gather input on the possible formation of a Transportation Benefit District for unincorporated areas of the county.

“Every single penny generated in the unincorporated area will go to unincorporated (county transportation) programs,” Thurston County Public Works director Ramiro Chavez said Wednesday.

Washington law allows cities and counties to create local Transportation Benefit Districts to help raise money for transit and transportation infrastructure. The most common funding mechanism is through $20 vehicle tab fees that do not have to be approved by voters. However, some districts are funded through a sales tax.

So far, almost 70 cities in counties have created Transportation Benefit Districts, according to a list compiled by the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center, which consults with local governments in the state.

The Olympia City Council created a Transportation Benefit District in 2009, and the Tumwater City Council approved an ordinance in September. The Lacey City Council discussed a proposal to create a Transportation Benefit District last summer, but tabled the issue.

“I think the council is being prudent and taking their time in moving forward with this issue,” said city of Lacey finance director Troy Woo.

In addition, Lacey officials are working on a comprehensive six-year financial plan that will involve all city departments, and the issue might be addressed when that plan is finished, he said.

“It’s not a dead issue; they didn’t vote it down,” Woo said. “They just (decided) to defer it until mid-2015.”

Thurston County’s transportation system is made up of more than 1,000 miles of roadway, 109 bridges, 47 miles of trails and about 110 miles of sidewalk.

County officials floated the idea of forming a countywide Transportation Benefit District in 2011, but they weren’t able to get interest from the city governments, Chavez said. Now the county is prepared to act on its own.

If the commissioners approve an ordinance to create the district, they will serve as its board of directors. They also will be in charge of selecting the district’s funded projects.

Eric Johnson, executive director of Washington State Association of Counties, said county governments are facing a major funding crunch due to a 1 percent cap on property taxes, inflation, an increased need for road projects and shrinkage of federal timber dollars.

“A number of counties have simply been deferring operational costs,” Johnson said.

But now counties across the state are trying to find ways to create new revenue so they can catch up on those roads projects, he said. A Transportation Benefit District is a tool that allows a local government some flexibility in how it can raise money for targeted projects, he added.

Chavez said he believes the Littlerock Road L-4 bridge, which underwent an emergency replacement this summer, is an example of what happens when there isn’t enough money to maintain road, bridge and infrastructure projects.

The old bridge, a 1950s era structure that was riddled with cracks and sags, failed due to structural deficiencies and was closed for months. It was replaced with a $1.6 million bridge that was paid for with an emergency grant from the Federal Highway Bridge Program.

He said an emergency replacement of a road or bridge can cost two or three times as much as regular maintenance and preservation.

Chavez described the Transportation Benefit District proposal as “proactive and strategic.”