When light rail got a resounding thumbs up from voters here in 2008, even after the project had been plagued with cost overruns and mismanagement, the feeling was: Seattle’s great transit debate finally is settled.
“So be it, and that’s kind of the end of the story,” conceded one of the area’s longtime critics of rail transit.
“The thing that we’ve been debating my entire lifetime is over,” said another. “We are going to build light rail.”
When voters then doubled down by sanctioning a huge expansion of rail transit in 2016, despite massive additional costs and taxes, the take-away was even more final. No more talking. Just build the thing.
“Will there be legal and financial challenges ahead for Sound Transit? Almost certainly, given the agency’s history,” wrote editorial columnist Mark Higgins in this newspaper. “But consider this: Tuesday’s vote should finally put to rest 50 years of regional hand-wringing over mass transit.”
Nope! Never underestimate our local political system’s fondness for the do-over. And over and over and over.
So let the hand-wringing about light rail begin again. This year’s Initiative 976, courtesy of Tim Eyman and on the November ballot, marks by my weary count the eighth time in the past 24 years we will hold a regional or statewide referendum on whether light rail is right for Seattle and its suburbs.
Eyman’s latest, I-976 for $30 car tabs, would have the effect of slashing about 20% of Sound Transit’s revenue. The tax cut would make renewing your car tabs a lot cheaper, but would eliminate, overall, about $700 million per year in state and local road and transit funding.
The real target though, as ever, is that damned train. Half the lost money, about $350 million annually, would be cut from that thing we’ve been debating and voting on our entire lifetimes.
“What gets me giddy is the idea of ripping the heart out of Sound Transit,” Eyman told the Eastside Republican Club a few years ago when he was proposing a similar $30 tabs measure. “This is our one chance to be able to gut ’em like a pig … wouldn’t it be fun to do it one more time?”
What is it with the right’s obsession with rail and Sound Transit? Even with the service finally up and running, carrying 80,000 riders per day, conservative radio talkers increasingly have gone off the rails about it. To them it’s no longer a challenged, but functioning, transit agency. It’s a “criminal conspiracy” or a “criminal enterprise” — despite that it has never been accused, let alone convicted, of any crime.
Eyman labels it a “rogue” group unaccountable to the public — despite repeated votes from the public that lives in its taxing district, calling for the group to keep on doing what it’s doing.
It’s pricey, for sure. But its annual take in taxes and fares is $2 billion. That makes it about the same size as King County Metro, which runs buses in only one county. In other words, big but not scary big.
The whole controversy over how its car tab taxes are calculated seems wildly exaggerated as well. Yes, the agency uses a state schedule for car values that is higher than typical market value. But this has been so for 20-plus years now. It was approved by state lawmakers, including many Republicans, and it was baked into the widely available calculators where you, the voters, could assess what you’d have to pay in car taxes. You voted yes anyway (well, more than half of you did). If you’re flummoxed by your car tabs now, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Finally: Passing this initiative won’t actually gut ’em like a pig.
Let’s say Sound Transit’s car tab money gets canceled (which could very well happen, as this is a statewide vote, not just a vote inside light rail’s taxing district). It still would retain 80% of its revenue, the part from sales and property taxes. So they’ll just build rail slower, while serving fewer commuters, even as the region grows. That’s just hobbling the pig. Hooray?
So, no, it doesn’t seem all that fun to be doing this one more time — this dated, stale debate. It feels like a complete waste of time and resources. C’mon, this is Seattle, I’m sure we can find plenty of fresher things to wring our hands about.