Link riders. (Photo by Neal McNamara / Patch)

Washington voters are poised to weigh in on an initiative (I-976) targeting a suite of car tab fees this November. Tim Eyman, an elections fraud and perennial initiative booster, turned in his latest ballot measure last week to the Washington Secretary of State. While Eyman touts the initiative as a “return” to $30 car tab fees, the measure would roll back optional fees, many of which voters have imposed on themselves. Without the fees, many cities and transit agencies would be forced to cut things like road maintenance, bridge repair, new sidewalks, and transit service programs.

“Right now the Puget Sound region is leading the nation in growing transit ridership, making progressive transportation investments, and delivering basic services,” said Alex Hudson, Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition. “This initiative would be a major rollback of that progress and eliminate the authority for local communities to make investments in their transportation needs. People across Washington could see devastating cuts for their communities, from park and ride projects in Everett to bus rapid transit in Spokane. And of course the gutting of funds to build out the Puget Sound region’s voter-approved light rail system.”

Eyman’s campaign says that they turned in more than 352,000 signatures, well above the 259,622 needed to get on the November ballot. The Secretary of State will process the signatures to check that they are valid, but that is unlikely to keep the measure from appearing on the ballot.

What I-976 Threatens

One of the high profile fees that Eyman’s initiative takes aim at is the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 car tab fees. Under his measure, the car tab fee would be repealed after any bonds already issued and pledged for Sound Transit 3 projects are retired or defeased. Eyman’s measure would temporarily adjust the car tab fee formula, which some fee payers have expressed frustration with. State Senator Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) plans to address this with a prefiled bill to reduce payments for low-income individuals.

In 2016, voters passed a package of new taxes and fees to fund $54 billion in capital investments by Sound Transit to expand light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit across King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties. But Eyman’s initiative could create at least a $6 billion hole–probably much more–in the Sound Transit 3 budget, putting the delicately balanced transit expansion package at risk of collapse.

Another target is transportation benefit districts that have add-on car tab fees. These districts can be created at the city level or county level by voters, or in limited cases by vote of the jurisdictional governing board. These districts can then impose additional car tab fees to fund a smorgasbord of transportation purposes, including road projects and transit investments.

Seattle has a transportation benefit district that covers the whole city. Voters in 2014 overwhelming approved (with 62% of the vote) an $80 car tab fee–$20 below the maximum allowed by law–to preserve and expand King County Metro transit service. During that time frame, the benefit district has been able to invest about $45 million annually in transit, purchasing hundreds of thousands of additional service hours over the baseline that Metro would otherwise be providing. This service boost is why Seattle enjoys such frequent transit on popular routes.

Shoreline collects a $40 car tab fee which is used for preserving, maintaining, and operating the transportation in the city. Some of the fees help promote multimodal transportation options through the construction of sidewalks and bikes lanes. Tacoma’s $20 car tab fee is mostly focused on rehabilitating deteriorating streets, but a small sliver funds new curb ramps and upgrading signals. Dozens of other cities across the state have similar transportation benefit district car tab fee programs.

The initiative, however, would roll back other car tab fees authorized by state statute:

  • Public transit benefit districts located outside of the Sound Transit taxing district would not longer be able to impose a car tab fee for voter-approved passenger-only ferry systems. So far, no such districts have imposed this optional fee.
  • Electric vehicles registration fees ($150 per year) would be slashed dramatically, despite the fee’s intent to help fund maintenance for the wear and tear electric vehicles exact on state roads while avoiding gas taxes that otherwise fund those services. Revenue from the fees go to several state transportation accounts, including the motor vehicle fund (70%), transportation improvement account (15%), and rural arterial trust account (15%).
  • Additional registration fees on motor homes would also be slashed even though those vehicles have variable weights and can cause significant road damage. Fees go to the state multimodal transportation account.
  • Other vehicle registration fees would be reduced down to $30, which would strip a lot of funding from the state multimodal transportation account, too.

Loss of revenue to state transportation accounts means that all sorts of programs would be hit hard with funding shortfalls, such as new bike and Safe Routes to School infrastructure, rural road maintenance, Amtrak Cascades, critical bridge repair, and rural transit service. Local jurisdictions big and small would also lose their ability to use local funding options to keep up with transportation demands. That means communities like Wapato, Royal City, and Richland will fall further behind in infrastructure maintenance.

Campaign to Save Transportation Options Kicks Off

Last week, transportation advocates were vocal that they would fight the initiative.

“We rise or fall together as a state, which is why it is so important we continue to pool our resources so we can afford the things we need,” said Andrew Villeneuve, Executive Director of the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI). “This measure gravely threatens our state’s business climate, freedom of mobility, and future prosperity. It does so by gutting funding for many current and planned services: Amtrak Cascades, freight mobility projects, Sound Transit Link light rail, King County Metro bus service, and local roads.”

Villeneuve is not new to Eyman’s anti-transportation antics, which have caused immense harm to the traveling public in the state for more than two decades. For years, Villenueve’s organization has operated the Permanent Defense Fund to fight other Eyman initiatives, such as I-985 (2008), I-1033 (2009), I-1125 (2011), and I-517 (2013). NPI has already launched the No on I-976 campaign.

Joining the ranks to fight the initiative include Transportation Choices Coalition, Seattle Subway, All Aboard Washington, and The Urbanist. Keep Washington Rolling will also relaunch an opposition campaign to the initiative.

An Initiative Built on Lies Deserves Rejection

Eyman’s initiative misrepresents the truth of transportation and administrative costs. In fact, the initiative does not even remove state statute that allows the Washington State Department of Licensing to continue collecting additional fees, such as ensuring the cost of plate reflection is covered. The obsession with a $30 flat rate car tab obfuscates the increasing processing costs and basic maintenance, repair, and expansion of transportation facilities across the state. After all, the gas tax is limited in scope and itself falls short of covering the laundry list of transportation investments that state and local governments must make. Voters would be wise to make sure this initiative ends up in the dust bin of history instead of law.

The featured image is by Neal McNamara of Patch.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.