New $5 car tab fee will save state millions on third new ferry

OLYMPIA — A move aimed at saving the state money on the building of a new ferry will force many vehicle owners to pay more for their car tabs next year.

A bill heading to the governor would impose a $5 service fee on vehicle registrations and $12 fee on title transfers to finance construction of a 144-vehicle Olympic Class vessel for Washington State Ferries.

Two ferries in this class are being built now under a contract with Vigor Industrial in Seattle. Securing money for a third vessel would allow Vigor to sustain its production line and enable the state to lock in a lower price.

Without this stream of revenue, the vessel would not be built and a new price would need to be negotiated when the state could afford it. When that occurred, it’s likely the cost of labor and materials would be much higher, lawmakers and ferry officials said.

“We needed to keep building that third ferry because it saves us millions of dollars building three in a row,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the Republican co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Under House Bill 1129, those who purchase their car tabs or process titles through the state Department of Licensing and county auditor will pay the new fees starting Jan. 1. Those who transact such business with a subagent are not affected because they are already charged the service fees.

All the fees will be deposited in an account used only to build state ferries.*

The bill passed by margins of 61-37 in the House and 41-8 in the Senate.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill, which stands as the only transportation funding measure to emerge from the just-completed legislative session.

“This is the ‘package,’” joked Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, in reference to a proposal to raise several billion dollars for transportation improvements statewide that failed to make it through the Legislature.

Funding for this third large ferry was included in proposals crafted by House Democrats and Senate Republicans but neither succeeded. Lawmakers held off on enacting the fee bill until it was certain the larger transportation package had died.

“We all knew we had to have that third ferry,” Clibborn said.

Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, voted for it. He represents the 10th Legislative District which includes the ferry-dependent residents of Whidbey Island.

“This bill was a challenging bill for me to vote for,” he said. “I understand that there are people who don’t want to pay for our ferries. But they are part of our highway system. They are part of our commerce system.”

Though not enamored by imposing additional fees, Hayes said he was “very much persuaded” that acting now saves the state money on the cost of the ferry and preserves 100 jobs at a Freeland boat building firm involved in the project.

King said he encountered little resistance in his Republican-controlled Majority Coalition Caucus.

“The vast majority of our caucus knows we have a responsibility to our ferry system,” he said.

The first Olympic Class ferry, the Tokitae, is scheduled to begin service this summer on the Mukilteo-Clinton route. The second vessel, the Samish, is likely to serve the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route beginning next spring though the final assignment has not been determined.

They came in priced at $138 million and $126 million respectively. The negotiated priced for a third ferry, which has yet to be named, is $123 million.

Delivery of the third ferry is penciled in for the summer 2017. It is expected to serve the Seattle-Bremerton route.

Once it is deployed, the state will move to retire its 87-vehicle Evergreen State Class vessels which date back to the 1950s, according to Washington State Ferries officials.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Correction, March 21, 2014: Money from new service fees on vehicle registrations and transfers of motor vehicle titles will be deposited only in an account used to build state ferries. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported where the money would go.

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