With just a few days left to mail their ballots, voters across Washington are considering car-tab-cutting Initiative 976. Here, we offer an overview of the measure and answer some questions readers have asked Traffic Lab. Ballots must be postmarked or returned to a dropbox by 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Q: What would the initiative do?
A: I-976 would lower the cost of vehicle registration for drivers across Washington state by capping many car-tab fees at $30.
Sound Transit car-tab taxes would be repealed if the agency could change or retire certain bonds, and future car-tab taxes for Sound Transit would be reduced. Cities would lose the authority to charge local car-tab fees, and a .3% state sales tax on vehicle purchases would be eliminated. Future car-tab taxes for Sound Transit would be based on Kelley Blue Book value.
(This is all assuming I-976 withstands widely expected legal challenges.)
Q: Who’s behind I-976?
A: The initiative’s sponsor is Tim Eyman, who has pushed anti-tax measures for two decades. Eyman also faces a long-running campaign finance lawsuit brought by the state attorney general. To get the initiative on the ballot, Eyman turned in more than the required 260,000 signatures in support.
Q: Who opposes I-976?
A: The campaign against the initiative has been endorsed by a variety of elected officials and interest groups, including business, labor, transportation and environmental advocates. In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council have urged a “no” vote. The opposition campaign’s top donors are Microsoft, Amazon and Vulcan.
Q: What do supporters say?
A: Backers of the initiative say lawmakers have allowed car-tab taxes and fees to balloon despite voters 20 years ago approving $30 tabs. They say the state could use money from its reserves to backfill funding cuts.
I-976 supporters also take aim at the way one particular type of car-tab tax is calculated. Sound Transit car tabs are determined using a decades-old formula that overvalues many vehicles compared to the commonly used Kelley Blue Book. State lawmakers for several years considered changing the formula but didn’t. Eyman labels the tax “dishonest.”
Q: What do opponents say?
A: Opponents say the tax cuts would reduce important funding for local road maintenance, state transportation projects and bus and rail service, including service for people with disabilities. They warn against spending down state reserves that could be crucial when the next recession hits or robbing other parts of the state’s budget.
They also emphasize that Sound Transit’s car-tab taxes were voter-approved and tax calculators published during the 2016 Sound Transit 3 campaign accounted for the inflated formula.
Q: How much are car tabs now?
A: Just how much of a tax break vehicle owners would see depends on where they register their cars and trucks and, in Puget Sound, how much their vehicles are worth.
Today, vehicle owners across the state pay about $43 in a base registration fee, plus additional weight fees of $25 to $65. Electric and hybrid vehicle owners pay an additional new $75 fee that would stay in place if I-976 passes, according to state predictions.
In some cities, vehicle owners pay another flat car-tab fee that funds local projects. Of about 60 cities that use those fees, most are $20. A handful are $40. In Seattle, the fee is $80.
In the Sound Transit taxing district, which includes parts of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, vehicle owners pay an additional car-tab tax that is calculated based on the value of the vehicle. The owner of a 2016 Subaru Forester, for example, paid about $240 in Sound Transit car-tab taxes this year.
Q: What do car-tab fees pay for?
A: Roads, ferries, buses and trains.
State car tabs fund road and highway projects, Washington State Ferries, special-needs transportation, Washington State Patrol highway activities and other efforts. City car-tab fees often pay for basic maintenance like filling potholes. Seattle is one outlier, with some of its fee funding bus service and transit passes. Sound Transit uses car-tab revenue for construction of light rail, commuter rail and buses.
Q: What will happen if I-976 passes?
A: If the initiative takes effect in full and without new funding to backfill the losses, state transportation accounts would lose about $175 million in fiscal year 2020 and more than $300 million each year after that, according to the state analysis. Cities together could lose about $58 million a year and Sound Transit could lose $328 million a year plus long-term higher borrowing costs.
Some city officials have said they would cut necessary street maintenance, and Sound Transit has warned it could delay or cut projects. Of the lost state funding, the multimodal account — which funds things like special-needs transportation and bike and pedestrian projects — would take the biggest hit.
But it’s difficult to predict exactly which projects would be cut or delayed or whether lawmakers would find other money to backfill any of the losses.
Eyman has emphasized about $3 billion in state reserves, but most of that — $2.2 billion — is in the rainy-day fund that is meant to be saved for economic downturns or natural disasters.
Q: How will I-976 impact King County Metro?
A: Assuming no replacement funds, Metro services would lose some state funding for things like RapidRide expansion, electrification of buses and Access paratransit, according to the agency. If Seattle and King County do not replace the current funding from Seattle’s car-tab fee, Metro predicts busy routes like the RapidRide C, D and E could see cuts, but details remain to be seen.
Q: Are bridges going to collapse if I-976 passes?
A: In their focus on cuts to road projects, opponents have misleadingly used footage from the 2013 Skagit River bridge collapse. That bridge collapsed after being hit by a truck, not due to lax maintenance. Opponents have warned the initiative threatens funding for bridges and overpasses that “do not meet earthquake safety standards.”
Of a predicted $4 billion funding loss over six years, about $1.8 billion is to state funds that could be used for earthquake-safety efforts but are also used for other purposes, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.