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D.C. drivers will pay higher car registration fees under new policy

Some vehicle owners will see a 200 percent increase in their vehicle fees and pay as much as $500 annually per car

Shoppers and delivery vans share hard-to-find parking spots on Connecticut Avenue NW in Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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A 2009 Chrysler Town & Country has moved Karla Reid-Witt and her family for nearly a decade. It’s how she and her husband got their three children — now young adults — to Girl Scout and Boy Scout activities, theater and football games. It gave the family enough space for road trips. Now it’s how Reid-Witt moves two of her children into and out of their college dorm rooms.

But that 4,500-pound minivan is going to cost the Southeast D.C. family more as the city begins a new policy to target larger cars with higher registration fees. More than half of vehicles with D.C. tags will have fee hikes, in most cases starting this fall.

For the Reid-Witt family, it will mean a 50 percent price jump when renewing their registration. Other vehicle owners will see 200 percent increases and pay as much as $500 annually per car.

“It will be a hardship to have to pay $175 a year, especially given these economic times,” said Reid-Witt, an education advocate in the District. “Why would you do this to residents of the city?”

The D.C. Council added the new fee restructure in the city’s budget, raising the cost to own a car in the nation’s capital based on vehicle weight while embracing some of the heftiest fees in the nation. City leaders say the change will encourage a transition to electric vehicles and is part of D.C.'s strategy to combat climate change. The city already has the highest registration fees in the Washington region.

Annual fees will increase for cars weighing more than 3,500 pounds, while registration for those above 6,000 pounds will triple. The fee for vehicles under 3,500 pounds will be unchanged, at $72.

The Department of Motor Vehicles will begin charging most of the higher fees in October, with the heftier fees for the largest vehicles starting in 2023. The change will bring the city $2.1 million in the next fiscal year, and just over $9 million annually when fully in place in fiscal 2024, according to estimates from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

Supporters of the measure hope it will spur residents to go car-free or to choose smaller vehicles, while opponents argue the price hike will hit low-and middle-income households hardest.

Reid-Witt said a larger car is a luxury for some households, while for others it is a necessity to accommodate large families, wheelchair users or is used at a job in construction.

“The council was not really thinking through this policy from an equity lens,” she said.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a lead sponsor of the measure, said the additional money will help pay for infrastructure and improving road safety around schools. Heavier vehicles take a greater toll on city roads, she said, and “it’s only fair” that owners pay a larger share.

The policy also aims to address environmental and other traffic safety concerns, said Cheh, noting that heavier vehicles consume more fuel and can be more lethal in a collision involving pedestrians or bicyclists.

“People who have these vehicles really ought to pay more for the harm that they’re causing,” she said.

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Nearly 152,000 motor vehicles registered in the city, or about 52 percent, will be affected by the fee changes, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Residents who own SUVs, minivans and trucks — particularly the heaviest models — will pay significantly more.

The owner of a vehicle that weighs between 5,000 and 5,999 pounds, for example, will pay $250 instead of $155, a 61 percent increase. D.C. has about 15,350 registered vehicles in that category. The fee for passenger vehicles weighing at least 6,000 pounds will go from $155 to $500, a 223 percent hike. That heaviest category includes about 9,200 vehicles in the city.

Commercial vehicles will also have a fee hike based on weight. The annual registration cost for those vehicles weighing between 7,000 and 9,999 pounds will rise to $500. Vehicles at least 10,000 pounds will carry a $700 fee, plus $50 for each additional 1,000 pounds.

Under the measure, included in the city’s fiscal 2023 budget approved by the D.C. Council and awaiting Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) signature, a weight adjustment would be granted starting in fall 2023 for electric vehicles. Car owners will be able to subtract 1,000 pounds for the purpose of the DMV’s fee assessment.

About a dozen states charge weight-based registration fees, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, while about half charge a flat rate. Others charge based on the value or age of a vehicle.

In the D.C. area, Maryland’s base fee for passenger vehicles up to 3,700 pounds is $135 every two years, while heavier cars cost $187 for the two-year period, according to the Motor Vehicle Administration. Virginians have the choice to pay annually or every two or three years, with a base fee of $30.75 for passenger cars up to 4,000 pounds and $35.75 for vehicles up to 6,500 pounds, according to the DMV.

The District is updating its vehicle registration fees for the first time since 2005. The policy is also the latest to target car ownership as the city seeks to reduce transportation emissions and increase traffic safety. The D.C. Council last year increased the cost of residential street parking permits, including creating a system in which households with multiple cars pay more for permits to park on streets.

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Cheh, who also introduced that proposal, said the measures are “blunt instruments” to shift car dependency in the city.

She said the ownership of heavier cars has proliferated in the nearly two decades since registration fees were last changed, creating more harm to city roads. Research cited in an April D.C. Council report indicates the city’s spending on local road maintenance has surged, from $7 million in 2005 to a peak of $81 million in 2020. During that period, the report said, the number of vehicles weighing more than 4,000 pounds grew to around 60 percent of the market.

“The harm that heavier vehicles cause to our roadways play a direct role in these high costs, which are borne by District taxpayers,” the council report notes. “The heavier a vehicle is, the greater its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”

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Cheh said the measure is about fairness in paying for road usage rather than trying to serve as a deterrent to own heavier cars.

“I’m not under any illusion that these fees, by themselves, will compel drivers to sell their heavier vehicles,” she said. “But if it deters some people from driving very heavy vehicles, that’s good, too.”

Cheh said a council study found most car owners either wouldn’t see an increase or would be “modestly” affected. Most registered cars subject to the fee increase fall in the 3,500- to 4,999-pound range, which would see registration fees rise from $115 to $175.

The increase comes as gas prices hover near $5 a gallon and the cost of other essentials, such as groceries and housing costs, have also risen amid inflation that nears a 40-year high.

Reid-Witt said the previous $115 fee on her Chrysler already was a hardship on her family, noting the new policy will charge city residents more while suburbanites will continue to drive on D.C. streets without a fee increase.

For her family, the Chrysler is the family’s only way to get around and a necessity in a neighborhood that is far from a Metro station. Reid-Witt said substituting the minivan for a smaller vehicle wouldn’t suit her family’s needs.

“We have very practical reasons,” she said. “This is our only car that has to serve all of our needs.”