Both Democrats and Republicans say they want to reduce Sound Transit’s car-tab taxes. But the issue is still playing a major role in the 45th District state Senate race.
The headline, in 36-point type, blares on Jinyoung Lee Englund’s campaign website: “Will reduce car tab fees and demand a higher level of accountability from Sound Transit.”
Car-tab fees — increased this year to pay for the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 and based on a longstanding, but inflated, formula for estimating a car’s value — have become a major issue in Englund’s race against Manka Dhingra for the 45th District state Senate seat on the Eastside.
But Dhingra, a Democrat, also wants to reduce car-tab fees.
She wants to fix the inflated valuation table Sound Transit uses to calculate car-tab fees. Englund, a Republican, also wants to fix the table, but would go much further and cut taxes to the extent that Sound Transit says would imperil projects.
Both the Republican-controlled state Senate and the Democrat-controlled state House passed bills this year to reduce car-tab fees. A hefty majority of legislators, from both parties, say they want to reduce car-tab fees.
In the most expensive legislative race in state history, one that will almost certainly decide which party controls the state Senate and who holds the balance of power in Olympia, why are we still talking about an issue that it seems like everyone agrees on?
To build 62 new miles of new light rail and expand express bus routes around the Puget Sound region, Sound Transit 3 increased sales, property and car-tab taxes.
The car-tab tax rate nearly quadrupled, from 0.3 percent of a car’s value, to 1.1 percent. But Sound Transit’s longstanding formula for calculating a car’s value — which it inherited from the Legislature and did not change as a result of ST3 — is inflated, leading to higher values, and thus higher bills, for taxpayers with newer cars.
When people started getting their bills earlier this year they complained. The Legislature responded.
The House passed a bill that would move to a more accurate valuation formula for the ST3 tax increases. It would cost about $2 billion, including increased debt and borrowing costs, Sound Transit said.
Senate Republicans also passed a bill to change the valuation formula, but their bill also slashed the tax rate itself by more than 50 percent. That, Sound Transit said, would blow a $12 billion hole in its budget and imperil promised projects.
Englund, who did not support ST3, said she would vote for either the House or the Senate bill.
“Through this entire process, the passing of ST3 and people getting their car-tab bills in the mail, I think we’ve really deteriorated the trust in government,” she said. “We really need to work at restoring that.”
Dhingra, who voted for ST3 but isn’t sure if she would do so if the vote were held again this year, would have supported the House bill. The Senate bill, she said, would cripple Sound Transit.
“What I see is a pattern of behavior coming out of the leadership of the Senate,” Dhingra said. “It’s a very obstructionist mentality and frankly I think that’s why the people want to change the leadership.”
Both parties wanted to fix the inflated valuation formula, but it didn’t get fixed.
“The House wants to do some puny little thing that doesn’t make a difference in the average family’s bill,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville said. “Our bill is the only one that gave real relief to the taxpayer.”
Democrats don’t understand why Republicans wouldn’t accept the changes that both parties agreed on, and they see nefarious motives.
“I just have a hunch that maybe they wanted it as a political issue in the 45th [District],” Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, said. “Had we actually fixed it for the people of Washington by passing the House bill, they wouldn’t have had it as a political issue.”
I-405 toll lanes
The other major transportation issue in the 45th District race is the express toll lanes on Interstate 405, which slices through the western edge of the district.
Englund wants to ditch the tolls.
Dhingra would keep them.
The law authorizing the toll lanes requires them to move traffic at least 45 mph at peak travel times, 90 percent of the time. While the lanes are significantly speeding up commutes for people who use them, they’re not meeting that threshold. But the Washington State Department of Transportation says the toll lanes can continue because they’re meeting their revenue goals.
Englund says that toll prices that fluctuate between 75 cents and $10, depending on traffic levels, are not fair to people trying to plan a transportation budget.
“It doesn’t work for them,” she said. “It is impossible for families to predict how much money they need to set aside each month just to pay the toll to get to work.”
Both candidates say they want increased bus service to give commuters more options.
One thing to consider: Ditching the toll lanes may also mean ditching increased bus service.
ST3 includes a more than $800 million project to run a bus rapid-transit route for 38 miles, mostly along 405, from Lynnwood to Burien.
But the agency has long said the project is contingent on the toll lanes remaining in place so the buses aren’t stuck in traffic.
“If the traffic’s not going to move, there will be no rapid in bus rapid transit,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said recently. “Our whole plans for the I-405 bus rapid transit are premised on the fact that the lane has got to move.”