With Initiative 976 to be decided by the courts despite passing in 33 of Washington’s 39 counties, here are a few observations about the measure to return car tabs to $30, why it passed and what the Legislature should do.
First, many Sound Transit voters are fed up. Nearly 58% of King County voters approved the “ST3” ballot measure in 2016; 51% of Snohomish County voters said yes, but only 44.2% in Pierce County agreed. Then came the sky-high car-tab fees resulting from the very expensive vehicle-valuation system Sound Transit used for ST3.
Judging by the I-976 results within the Sound Transit district, voters seized the opportunity to express their unhappiness: A majority in many suburban King County legislative districts north and south of Seattle favored I-976, as did solid majorities of Sound Transit voters in Pierce County (67%) and Snohomish County (54%).
This noticeable shift among Sound Transit voters sends a strong message: The transit agency needs to treat its taxpayers with fairness and respect and stop viewing them as cash machines. If the term “corporate greed” can be applied to large companies, it’s fair to apply the term “government greed” to Sound Transit.
Vehicle owners in 60 Washington cities, either within or outside Sound Transit’s taxing district, have been paying a second flat annual car-tab fee for local road improvements on top of the roughly $43 base vehicle registration fee: It’s ranged from $20 in 50 communities to $40 in a handful to a whopping $80 in Seattle, approved by voters there. That doesn’t count additional weight fees ranging from $25 to $72. And owners of electric and hybrid vehicles now have to pay an extra fee of $75. These fees add up, and clearly, many voters are sick and tired of paying.
The lawsuit that is now holding up the implementation of I-976 was accompanied by Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement that he is suspending many highway projects that hadn’t started yet. Twenty-six state construction projects scheduled to go to bid within the next six months are now on hold, even though they are funded either entirely or largely by the state’s gas tax, which is mainly unrelated to I-976. Those projects shouldn’t be delayed.
We need a new, fair way to fund highway projects. Regardless of I-976’s fate, Washington needs a better way to fund highway projects. The state Department of Transportation reports the state gas tax isn’t producing as much revenue as expected due to more fuel-efficient or electric cars on our roads. The state Transportation Commission recently recommended a road usage charge (also called a “vehicle miles tax”) on drivers to raise more money. However, such a tax would be very costly for people who live in rural communities and must drive long distances for work, doctor visits or other reasons. Among other concerns, the estimated cost to collect the road usage charge is 10 to 12%, versus a half-percent on the gas tax.
Some of my Senate colleagues are offering a sensible long-term solution for Washington’s transportation needs — shifting the state sales-tax revenue from vehicle purchases into the state transportation budget over several biennium instead of continuing to put it in the state operating budget. The operating budget has seen huge increases in revenues, up 17% this biennium alone. It’s logical, given the relationship between vehicles and transportation infrastructure, and would allow lawmakers to maintain and increase transportation investments without adding a tax. That sounds like an approach the voters would appreciate.