Democrats Need To Stand Up For Sound Transit

Light rail car at Angel Lake Station. (Photo by Stephen Fesler)

Next week the 2018 legislative session opens, and it will be the first one in six years where Democrats hold majorities in both houses.

So why are transit advocates nervous?

Despite winning a hard-fought special election by more than 10 points, Democrats in Olympia are vowing to use their new majority to attack transit–putting voter-approved projects at significant risk. According to Joe O’Sullivan at the Seattle Times, “On Sound Transit car tabs: Chopp says Dems will move quickly this legislative session to pass their version to ease costs.”

At a time when the Trump Administration is threatening to defund Lynnwood Link, and after voters have proven once again they support the ST3 projects and the taxes needed to fund them, it is reckless and unnecessary for Democrats to undermine our region’s ability to address our transportation and climate woes.

First, let’s remember how we got here. After Sound Transit 3 passed by a wide margin at the November 2016 election, several anti-rail media outlets began playing up stories about higher car tab bills that were appearing in residents’ mailboxes. ST3 included an increase in the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) that caused owners of newer vehicles to pay significantly more money to renew their car tabs. (Last October, I paid just over $300 to renew my tabs on a vehicle that was a year old.)

Eventually reporters noted that Sound Transit had been using a method of calculating car values that led to higher estimates for some older vehicles than are found in the commonly used Kelley Blue Book. This was done at the direction of the legislature, and was known to legislators when they approved the ST3 financing plan in 2015. But Republicans and some Democrats seized on this as a way to try and deflect blame for what legislators believed was a groundswell of angry voters.

House Democrats and Senate Republicans both proposed legislation to change the way Sound Transit calculates the MVET. Both bills would deliver a significant cut to Sound Transit 3. The House bill, HB 2201 would have cut $2 billion from Sound Transit 3. Democrats argued the agency had enough money in contingency budgets to absorb this cut, and claimed their bill wouldn’t hurt delivery of voter-approved projects.

The House passed their bill and the Senate passed their bill. But neither chamber was willing to approve the other’s bill. As a result, nothing happened. The legislature took no action at all in 2017 on the MVET.

The lack of action on MVET produced no backlash at the polls.

Last fall, after the legislature did nothing to address the MVET issue, Republicans and their allies spent millions of dollars trying to hang on to a swing-district Senate seat covering parts of cities like Redmond, Kirkland and Sammamish. Most of the 45th district is subject to Sound Transit’s taxes. Redmond already gets light rail via East Link, an ST2 project already under construction. (ST3 would extend light rail to downtown Redmond and add bus rapid transit on I-405 and SR-522, however.) Republicans attempted to make the ST3 taxes a campaign issue in the special election.

Republicans lost that election by more than 10 points, and newly-elected State Senator Manka Dhingra gives Democrats a majority.

Democrats go into 2018 in an even stronger electoral position. This week’s Elway Poll confirms the dominant electoral position of Democrats going into the November 2018 election. Democrats hold a lead of 12 points on the generic legislative ballot. That lead grows to 16 points among likely voters. National polling, combined with results from states like Virginia and Alabama, shows massive swings to Democrats at all levels of power.

Democrats in the state legislature face no serious threat of losing seats or their majority. They are much more likely to pick up seats in November. Democrats from seats within the Sound Transit district are even safer. Hillary Clinton carried legislative districts by huge margins–winning the 30th by 20 points. Given the electoral trends and the polls, Democrats in these districts have no reason to fear an electoral backlash–especially when one failed to materialize after no action was taken on the MVET in 2017.

Democrats in Olympia are convinced they are just a few steps ahead of an angry pack of anti-tax wolves ready to destroy their majority. There is no evidence in 2018 that this fear is justified.

But there are very real threats to Sound Transit that have nothing to do with the MVET. Last year the Trump Administration delayed its delivery of a crucial $1 billion federal grant for the Lynnwood Link project and will make a final decision this year. Sound Transit continues to be worried about these federal grants, and for good reason. Just last week, the Trump Administration showed it is willing to defund and destroy rail projects when it declared the Gateway project under the Hudson River to be “dead.”

Shoreline South/145th Station is the southernmost station in the Lynnwood Link extension. (Sound Transit)

Lynnwood Link is also suffering from the effects of inflation in a hot economy. Land values and construction costs have risen during the region’s current economic boom, leading Sound Transit to seek ways to scale back the project’s cost.

These factors make it clear that Sound Transit’s contingency funds will not be able to absorb a cut initiated by the legislature. Those contingency funds are needed to guard against further inflation and/or further federal cuts. At a time when traffic woes continue to get worse, especially in Snohomish County, and as the federal government is systematically undermining climate action, it is hard to see why Democrats would use their legislative majorities to undermine Sound Transit and put these urgent projects at serious risk of failure.

If Democrats still want to change the way the MVET is calculated, they need to ensure that any money Sound Transit loses is replaced on a one-to-one basis.

However, I’d suggest our new Democratic majority take a very different approach to transit: add more money, not less. Legislators need to find ways to speed up the delivery of ST3 projects, and be prepared to replace any lost federal funds. The carbon tax that Governor Jay Inslee will propose next week would be an excellent way to raise those revenues, but other options, such as closing corporate tax loopholes, are also available to them.

Transit advocates put in a lot of time, effort, and money to help Democrats win the Senate majority. It’s time that Democratic legislators delivered for transit riders and for Puget Sound residents sick of being stuck in traffic and spewing pollution into the sky.

Sound Transit Supporters: The Campaign Is Not Over

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Robert Cruickshank is a transit rider and progressive campaigner who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. From 2011 to 2013 he served as Senior Communications Advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sound Transit is probably not going to be a major part of our climate change solution (thought it may still be a good project):

Voters are having sticker shock about the price of it, and if the vote was today it might not pass according to a recent poll:



Car tabs are excessive, state shouldn’t try to make up for years of public transportation apathy on a single generation of taxpayers. Bezos and company had their taxes scaled way back by Trump, time to reclaim them. C&T is also a good way to go, it disincentivizes wasteful energy consumption.
Taking an extra year or two off the implementation schedule won’t hurt, just buy all the land now before it goes up anymore. Also, drop the needless stations such as 130th st ne and Georgetown.


.Well said, Robert.

Sam Morgan

They need to find a way to raise money elsewhere. I personally live in Everett, and just renewed my tabs to the tune of ~$600. The way vehicles are being valued is ludicrous, and it’s a huge burden for someone like me, firmly in the middle class, to be shelling out that much money for the privilege to commute for 2 hours a day.

I won’t see any benefit from this plan for 18 years at best. Meanwhile, I’ll be paying many thousands of dollars and have to deal with worsening traffic conditions. There has to be a better way.

This is coming from someone who voted in favor of ST3. Had I known of the personal financial consequences of this, I’d have firmly voted against it.


Unfortunately, this is the way and being a person driving on the roadways only adds to the congestion.

As for $600 tabs, what sort of vehicle do you have? Must be worth about $50,000 to have tabs that high.

Sam Morgan

I don’t really have a choice unless I want to add a further 2 hours to my commute. No good options exist to efficiently commute to Redmond from Everett. I’d happily use transit if it were available to me.

As for the tabs, it’s a 2016 Kia Soul EV. They value it at like 33k, it’s worth maybe 15k, and I’m hit with an additional EV tax. Sucks.


You pay 0 gas tax though. Gotta count that since it’d be amortized into the usage of your vehicle as well. Plus aren’t we always complaining that nothing in this state is progressive? If we change the thing to reflect true vehicle valuation, we’d end up with a much less progressive funding scheme. You’ve got a decent car, but are you okay with jacking up the tabs on a 1999 Toyota, whose driver is much more likely to be poorer?

Shane Moloney

Soul EV lease starts at $129 a month – likely less than the operating/maintenance/gas cost of that 1999 Toyota. Is your form of progressiveness that only the affluent should be able to afford EV driving?


Washington is a real paradox. We are one of the most liberal states in the union, but our state government has some of the most conservative fiscal policies in any state…

The Democrats think their win is due to unpopular Trump… but I suspect that has little to do with it. It’s just demographics and self sorting. Virtually everyone who moves to WA these days is liberal. Every generation WA has gotten bluer.

Manka Dhingra won a seat that the Republicans had been holding onto by the skin of their teeth for a long time. As soon as Andy Hill died it was over. The 45th election wasn’t even close.

Democrats should focus on democratic priorities now…