Judging from Initiative 976’s initial results, state Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, was right: The Hunger Games are about to start.
The voters’ approval of I-976 will pit worthy project against worthy project as the state’s many infrastructure needs are triaged to meet this new austerity mandate. Significant road, rail and ferry projects are going to be in fierce competition for scarce dollars, now that I-976 has lopped off a major source of funding.
Blame your Legislature for allowing the debate over car tabs to progress to an election that will slow Sound Transit voter-approved projects, trim voter-approved Seattle transit and kill funding for council-approved projects across the state. Lawmakers spent years shirking their responsibility to fix Sound Transit’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. Wide swaths of the public loathed that the tax’s formula disregarded cars’ actual market worth by inflating new cars’ values.
Those taxpayers found common purpose with initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s regular anti-tax crowd. Eyman seized the opportunity and got it onto the ballot, a reprise of his 1999 initiative that also cut car tab fees to $30. Future car-tab fees will rely on Kelley Blue Book valuation, under I-976.
The license-plate fees created to route billions of dollars to Sound Transit light-rail construction over time, Seattle’s bus system, road and bridge maintenance statewide, and construction on state highways, county roads and in 61 local jurisdictions are now zeroed out. Some long-awaited projects will have to go back to the shelf.
Lawmakers will pick winners and losers. And new taxes will likely be levied, sooner or later. The state’s infrastructure needs aren’t eliminated just because car-tab revenues are cut.
Next year, a court will decide if I-976 is Eyman’s political swan song as he faces a judge’s decision over alleged campaign-finance violations. If so, he parts leaving voters with much to remember him by: a few hundred dollars in three county’s households each year, and an immense blow to infrastructure construction and maintenance in a fast-growing and often-gridlocked region.