Seattle and King County, Wash., are trying to block in state court a recently approved ballot initiative that would blow a half-billion-dollar hole in Washington state transportation funding plans and delay expansion of Seattle’s light-rail system.
Voters in Washington approved a referendum Nov. 5 repealing a key auto registration fee used by the state to fund transportation projects. State and local officials said that they were assessing all future projects not already under way to see what work might have to be postponed. “This would harm our commuters, our economy and our environment,” said John Marchione, chairman of SoundTransit, the main transportation agency in the Seattle area.
The basis of the lawsuit is that ballot initiatives under Washington law can only cover one issue. The plaintiffs call the ballot initiative, I-976, a “poorly drafted hodgepodge.”
Much transportation work in Washington state is funded by a gas tax and other sources. But the vote does create a hole in future funding plans by capping the cost of the auto fees, called car tabs, and by preventing cities or regional authorities, such as SoundTransit, which runs the light rail system in King County, from independently raising car excise taxes.
If the ballot initiative vote survives the court challenge, the impact will be significant on state and local transportation spending. The state Office of Financial Management estimates the state and local governments will lose a total of $4 billion over the next six years.
In the week following the vote, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) directed the state Dept. of Transportation to postpone work on capital expansion projects not yet started. WashDOT said in a statement that the vote opened a funding gap in transportation accounts during the 2019-21 biennium estimated to be $451 million. The entire biennial budget is $6.7 billion.
Tim Eyman, who sponsored the ballot initiative, has been prolific in launching antitax ballot initiatives. He recently announced that he would run for governor. Steven D. Stehr, a distinguished professor in civic education and public civility at Washington State University, notes that “Washingtonians are very antitax” and that the state has no income tax.
Voters were in essence reversing a 2016 ballot vote—held only in the Puget Sound area—on an initiative sponsored by SoundTransit. It authorized the agency to collect the car excise tax to help fund a major rail expansion. But the method of determining and collecting the auto value tax was unpopular: the ballot initiative approved by voters in 2016 more than tripled car-tab taxes in the Puget Sound region. Under the successful initiative, the car tab would now be a flat rate of $30.