Getting There: How the State Sets the Value of a Car for License Fees

June 20, 2005
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Question: Our state license tab fee, also known as the motor vehicle excise tax, has confused and possibly irritated Ken Coe. Ken drives a 2002 Volkswagen Jetta, which he says has a Blue Book value for resale of around $13,000, yet the assessment on his registration is for $18,500.

Ken says he discovered that the “value code” on his registration has not changed since the car was first registered. That’s true for friends of his as well.

Ken has asked about this and says he keeps getting “shuffled between agencies.”

Ken would like to know which department determines the value codes and also the basis of the taxation.

“I don’t mind paying my fair share, but feel I am being taken advantage of,” he says.

Answer: The department that handles the motor vehicle excise tax is the state Department of Licensing.

Brad Benfield, a spokesman for the department, says the value code is the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, also known as MSRP, for the vehicle before options are added. As such, the value code does not change.

The valuation of your car for tax purposes is a percentage of that MSRP that declines as the car ages. The state uses a single depreciation factor — age — for all vehicles. It thus does not take into account many factors about a vehicle that are relevant to its market value. The state does not claim that the valuations match the market value of the vehicle. Indeed, the two usually vary, sometimes considerably.

Some legislators and others have been critical of the depreciation schedule established by the Legislature as being unfair to newer cars and overly generous to older cars. There’s been some talk of revising it. There are also lawsuits working their way through the courts that could affect the tax.

The department has said that appraising cars individually is not practical.

Benfield notes, by the way, that there is an exception to his statement that value codes do not change. For large commercial trucks, which can log a quarter-million miles a year and can experience “extreme depreciation,” the value codes do change upon resale of the truck.

Question: Max Gellert says it would be “great” if the state improved AM radio reception under the convention center downtown while doing the freeway repair work in that area that is going on now.

He says he knows it is technically feasible, because AM radio reception is fine when he drives inside the Interstate 90 tunnels at Mount Baker and on Mercer Island.

Answer: Myly Posse, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, says the Mount Baker and Mercer Island tunnels are equipped with a system that rebroadcasts 20 AM and FM stations.

During emergencies, the department can interrupt the broadcast with a message of its own, she says.

“Unfortunately, the roadway under the convention center is too short a stretch for this type of system.”

Question: Rob Cummings asks whether Queen Anne Avenue North from West Roy Street up the hill to West Lee Street is a two-lane or four-lane road.

He says it’s treated as a four-lane road by nearly everyone. “However, there are no lane markings (other than a crack in the cement) to indicate this is a four-lane and not a two-lane road.”

Answer: Queen Anne Avenue in that stretch is considered a four-lane street, says Katherine Casseday, the city’s traffic manager. Parking is restricted there, making the roadway wide enough to allow for two lanes in each direction.

“Paint stripes are not required to designate two lanes,” Casseday says.

She cites the city’s code, which specifically defines multilane streets based on whether they are wide enough to reasonably accommodate two or more separate lanes of traffic in the same direction. The code goes on to say that this is true “whether or not such lanes are marked.”

Casseday comments that it might seem simple to go out and paint the stripe, but with hundreds of miles of streets citywide in this situation, it’s not simple.

“Given our short painting season, the fiscal constraints under which we must operate, and the fact that this street section operates legally as a four-lane street without a history of collision problems, we have no plans at this time to paint these lanes,” she says.

  • New and notable. Metro bus shelters are going solar. Carmanah Technologies, a Victoria, B.C., company, just got a contract to provide up to $400,000 in solar-powered LED systems to light some shelters in the next two years. The solar-powered lights require 90 percent less energy than conventional incandescent bulbs and can operate up to 100,000 hours before replacement, the company says. No digging or permits are required for installation. The company describes cloudy Seattle as a “challenging” place for solar lighting but says it’s confident its system will work.
  • Northgate alert. Four major Northgate-area arterials will be resurfaced this summer. They are Northgate Way Northeast from Fifth Avenue Northeast to 15th Avenue Northeast; Roosevelt Way Northeast from Northeast 92nd Street to Northeast Northgate Way; Pinehurst Way Northeast from Northgate Way to Northeast 117th Street; and 15th from Northeast 125th Street to Northeast 145th Street. The work is expected to begin in August.