House Democrats Pass Bill Cutting Sound Transit Revenue, Next Step Unknown

Roll call on HB 2201

Democrats in the Washington State House rushed Bill 2201 out of committee on Tuesday and then quickly passed it through the House late Wednesday night. The bill is meant to address concerns about car tab fees. It requires Sound Transit to reimburse taxpayers, cutting a check to car owners who have already paid their tabs this year. It essentially creates a more accurate car valuation, rather than the deprecated valuation that’s been used over the last decade. Rough estimates suggest this change will reduce Sound Transit funding by $2.3 billion.

Unfortunately, the rush to pass the bill means Sound Transit wasn’t given any time to analyze impacts on voter approved projects. There was also no fiscal note produced either because House Democrats didn’t request one or there wasn’t enough time to produce one. The bill will now go to the Republican controlled Senate which can either pass it as-is or attempt a negotiation. If passed by the Senate without changes, the bill will go to Governor Jay Inslee (D-Washington). Advocates are urging Governor Inslee to veto any bill that doesn’t replace Sound Transit revenue.

How Did We Get Here?

In 2015, Democrats made massive concessions to Republicans on the transportation bill. The end result put nearly $9 billion, besides maintenance and repair, into road projects. This included massive highway expansions. For that concession, residents in the Seattle metro area gained the opportunity to raise their own taxes to pay for rail.

Sound Transit ran with the opportunity and compiled a truly ambitious list of projects, an estimated $54 billion investment spread through the region over thirty years. The vote came in on a truly miserable election night and passed by more than eight points. All the concessions and negotiation appeared to have paid off.

Yet, opposition to the measure didn’t stop. The Seattle Timeswho opposed the ballot measurepublished at least seven pieces (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) between February and March highlighting anger over car tab increases. The right-wing media stoked the flames, alleging Sound Transit dishonestly “preyed” on voters and levied an “illegal” $6 billion tax. These complaints are variations of the “bullshit claims” thrown around during the campaign.

The misinformation appears to have worked and the anger about car tabs is real. Many people believe their cars were incorrectly taxed and that Sound Transit deceived them. What’s less clear is how many of these people would ever vote for a Democrat, support transit, or approve of any additional taxes ever. The outcry appears to be loud but the political implications are unclear.

What Are Seattle’s Legislators Thinking?

The loud outcry has led to some fear that voters could punish Sound Transit with a vindictive ballot measure. In 2016, Tim Eyman attempted to roll out two initiatives directly aimed at Sound Transit, capping car tabs at $30, but failed to collect enough signatures for either measure. Eyman’s last successful attack on car tabs was a ballot measure he passed in 2006 but was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court. More recently, Eyman was sued for violating campaign finance laws and his future running initiatives appears to be in jeopardy. There is also some concern that the car tabs could put Democratic legislators at risk in districts where ST3 wasn’t as popular. However, legislative elections aren’t until November 2018.

Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-46), who’s been an outspoken supporter of Sound Transit 3 in the past, described her take concerning the problem over the phone, “How do you thread that needle where you are solving for the valuation problem without affecting projects?” She went on to say, “There was a strong agreement in the caucus that we needed to solve for a very narrow problem about the valuation schedule.” After the discussion, Farrell shared this thinking on her Facebook wall.

Advocates were generally less worried about the valuation but left wondering why the bill didn’t include an effort to plug the $2.3 billion hole it created. The Urbanist sought comment from all the legislators in the House that represent Seattle. No comment was received from Representatives Frank Chopp (D-43), Eileen Cody (D-34), Steve Bergquist (D-11), Zack Hudgins (D-11), Eric Pettigrew (D-37), Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37), or Gerry Pollet (D-46).

However, Representatives Jessyn Farrell, Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34), Gael Tarleton (D-36), Noelle Frame (D-36), and Nicole Macri (D-43) all spent a significant amount of time discussing the issues over the phone. One thing is definitely clear: there is not a plan at this time to plug the $2.3 billion hole. Fitzgibbon, another outspoken Sound Transit 3 supporter summarized, “I don’t think we have that kind of resources for them [Sound Transit] now.” Macri captured the same problem, “How do we protect transit in the most realistic way? Saying we’ll backfill $780 million dollars won’t get out of the Legislature.” 

Without a path to restore the hole, transit advocates are left wondering what the impacts will be. Concerns continue to rise as messages from the Democrats appear to make it sound like the cuts don’t matter.

Sound Transit might raise more revenue than expected or pursue different designs. The latter point should send shivers down the spine of transit advocates. It’s not uncommon to see good projects lose funding, require redesign, and turn into bad projects that kill political support. Further, suggesting projects can be completed with less money than projected implicitly supports an extremely harmful narrative; Sound Transit is a boondoggley pork machine that doesn’t need all the money it’s requesting.

Tarleton attempted to reassure the impact would be minimal simply due to legislators commitment to Sound Transit. “As long as I am in this legislature, I will fight for the funding for both light rail and bus transit to get that line into Ballard.” Farrell relied less on confidence, addressing potential cuts head-on. “If they [Sound Transit] got to a situation where they tried everything and there was an impact to the project list, you gotta do parking garages first and down the line so you don’t affect light rail.” This sounds good to urbanists but immediately raises questions. What about subarea equity goals? Will killed projects undermine the suburban/urban coalition that trusted Sound Transit to deliver? Farrell also provided a more optimistic outcome, additional revenue could come from regional mobility grants. This would be great but the reassurance comes during a moment when legislators also believe it’s impossible to pass any bill with additional revenue.

The bill passed by the House was meant to address a basic unfairness, high car valuations. The bill follows massive levels of grassroots advocacy. Supporters built non-profits, swallowed highway expansions, knocked on doors, donated money, and finally saw a victory that evaded Seattle for decades, or so they thought. For now, it’s unclear what comes next. Transit supports are left reflecting on what is fair about a bill that blows a hole through the decades-long effort. 

We Must Block The Car Tab Bill Cuts To Sound Transit

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Owen does servicing and consulting for a software company to pay the bills. He has an amateur interest in urban policy, focusing on housing. His primary mode is a bicycle but isn't ashamed of riding down the hill and taking the bus back up. Feel free to tweet at him: @pickovven.