When Washington state voters passed Initiative 976, which cuts car-tab fees down to a $30 cap, transportation agencies across the state had sharp reactions. Gov. Jay Inslee put a halt on all transportation projects that hadn’t yet started. But Sound Transit has announced a different approach, waiting to take any action on future projects until a legal fight over the initiative gets resolved.
Sound Transit believes the Initiative 976 is unconstitutional, since voters had already approved bonds to pay for Sound Transit’s light rail extension throughout the Puget Sound using car-tab fees. The agency’s attorney said that nothing can repeal the fees until the $2 billion-plus of bonds get repaid.
Sound Transit has also said that if the new $30 fee happens, the agency would lose $7.2 billion over the next 20 years, requiring a drastic change in the way the agency operates, let alone which projects currently in planning get to move forward. With that in mind, and so many projects on the table right now, the agency has decided to not delay or defer projects and will move forward on projects while the City of Seattle is joined by other state agencies looking to legally head off the enactment of Initiative 976.
The effort to get an injunction against the initiative heads to a King County Superior Court judge in December, the first step in what could be a lengthy battle over the final fate of the voter-approved initiative.
Sound Transit says that just because the initiative passed on a statewide level, that doesn’t mean it shows the will of the people in the Sound Transit district. In a statement, John Marchione, Redmond mayor and Sound Transit board chairman, said that the district voters who actually pay Sound Transit’s motor vehicle excise tax have endorsed its continuation to finance the transit expansions.
The fight over car-tab fees and how far they can go in paying for Sound Transit projects is just one area of concern for Washington lawmakers. Reducing the fee not only limits money for the transit agency, but also removes funds from the Multimodal Account that includes rail projects and grant programs, along with money for Washington State Ferries.
That’s why the City of Seattle, King County and Washington State Transit Association, which includes Sound Transit, have joined with others to seek to stop the initiative from becoming reality.
The Washington State Dept. of Transportation has released a list of 90 specific projects that will be put on hold because of $4 billion in tax revenue not entering state use by 2025, including $451 million in the 2019-21 budget.
Of the delayed projects, 26 were scheduled to go to bid in the next sixth months. The largest projects impacted include the $100 million to $200 million State Route 509 widening and the $60 million to $70 million State Route 520/Interstate 5 interchange project.
The fate of the $30 car-tab initiative could well decide the fate of not only Sound Transit projects, but the transportation landscape across Washington state.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.