Perpetual thorn in Washington state government’s side Tim Eyman struck again last night. His Initiative 976 (I-976) cutting car tabs to $30 almost surely passed after running up a 55-to-45 margin on Election night returns, and that means massive cuts to transportation funding across the state. For Seattle that means that 110,000 hours of bus service funded through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) will vanish unless the City backfills the cuts. Add in surrounding cities’ benefit districts and that’s another 65,000 hours lost.
“The measure, if it passes, would cut Transportation Benefit District funding by approximately $36 million, resulting in the loss of 175,000 Metro bus service hours on 74 routes in Seattle, Burien, Shoreline, Skyway, Tukwila, and White Center,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.
While the cuts will mostly affect off-peak service, it will surely damage bus reliability and frequency. Bus crowding will likely also worsen. Seattle is leading the nation in transit ridership growth and in lowering car ownership rates, so the funding cuts come at a time when Seattle should be ramping up service. I-976 jeopardizes that momentum, and it jeopardizes ORCA LIFT and Youth ORCA, reduced fare transit pass programs directed at low-income residents and students, respectively, and funded through benefit districts.
Executive Constantine called the funding cuts “devastating” and announced he was directing the King County Prosecuting Attorney to prepare a lawsuit to challenge on constitutional grounds.
“The passage of I-976 underscores the ongoing need for comprehensive state tax reform, but in the short term we must clean up another mess that Tim Eyman has created for our state, our region, and our economy,” Executive Constantine said. “There will be many discussions in the weeks and months ahead to determine how to overcome the loss of safety and mobility caused by this irresponsible initiative, but the impact of I-976 to transportation is – in a word – devastating.”
Seattle also intends to sue, Melissa Santos reported in Crosscut: “Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes plan to hold a press conference Thursday to announce a lawsuit that will seek to block the initiative.” The state, however, isn’t planning a lawsuit of its own: “State Rep. Jake Fey, who chairs the Transportation Committee in the state House, said he wasn’t trying to sue on behalf of the state at this point,” Santos said.
Blocking the Will of King County Voters
It wasn’t lost on the Executive that state voters were intervening to overturn the will of his constituents. King County passed Sound Transit 3 with 58% of the vote; they passed the carbon fee initiative with 58% of the vote, and thus far they’re rejecting Tim Eyman’s I-976, with 57% voting no. But voters from outside King County effectively have blocked the county from taxing itself by popular vote. Sound Transit said I-976 amounts to a $20 billion hit to its light rail expansion plans. Transportation Benefit Districts have also passed by a wide margin; Seattle’s passed with 62% in 2014.
“We in King County–where Sound Transit 3 was overwhelmingly approved and I-976 was overwhelmingly defeated–we are going to keep pushing ahead, building a transportation system and economy that gives every person access to a better future,” Constantine added.
Of course, the City, County and State may see the folly in Eyman’s transportation cuts (if they stand) and step in with a funding plan. The Washington State Legislature will surely take some action. But will it be enough to recover from the massive blow dealt to state transportation systems last night?
State Democrats Scramble for Fixes
Early indications from State Senator Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo) suggest that the State Legislature doesn’t yet have a plan in place to address the cuts. Moreover, the Senate is not yet committing to finding new revenue. They appear to be running in survival mode.
“Basically, I kind of view this as a sinking ship, and I have to do what I can to try to save most of the people on the ship–but the ship’s going down,” State Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told Santos on Wednesday. Hobbs has been a proponent of a small carbon tax to fund highway projects.
Asked what we the State Legislature should do, Liias tweeted: “Use a climate lens to evaluate which investments are kept/cut. If it doesn’t reduce emissions and protect the future of the planet, those projects should be the first to go. Then launch a conversation with the people about what kind of future we want? More traffic or more options.”
But Democrats do seem to be hoping for the courts to throw out the initiative as unconstitutional.
“This will set back our infrastructure investments by years if it becomes law,” Liias tweeted. “Hoping late ballots turn the tide or that a court throws this pile of $h!t out as unconstitutional.”
House Transportation Chair Fey, meanwhile, said he was focused on backfilling cuts. I-976 appears to have blasted a $458 million hole in the state’s two-year transportation budget amounting to a 15% cut to the state transportation budget between now and June 2021, Fey said.
That state budget hole puts Regional Mobility Grants in jeopardy. “If the state Legislature decided to make across-the-board reductions in the Multimodal Account due to I-976 passage, it could result in over $100 million in cuts to Metro services between 2020 and 2025,” Executive Constantine said. These cuts could include:
- $22.8 million in cuts to the Regional Mobility Grant Program awards for nine Metro projects, including RapidRide expansion, speed and reliability projects, access to transit, transit integration, and reduction in service on the Route 101 in Renton.
- Burien, Kent, Tukwila, and Seattle would see cuts of $29.2 million in grants for RapidRide investments, access to transit, and speed and reliability improvements.
- $12.2 million in cuts to the Access paratransit program.
- Other cuts to programs that provide bus passes to high school students, and incentives to small businesses and non-profits to provide ORCA Passes to employees would also be included.
Targeting Transit Cuts
For now, King County will do the best it can to direct the cuts to lowest impact areas, the Executive said.
“We and the City of Seattle share a set a principles with which we will approach mobility reductions,” Executive Constantine said. “These principles include: minimizing impacts to vulnerable populations, especially those with low-incomes and people of color; maintaining the 10- and 15-minute service frequency whenever possible; and minimizing overcrowding.”
The County’s busiest buses are boosted by added service funded by car tabs. In all, Metro sees about 400,000 transit boardings each weekday. No matter how carefully the County cuts, it’s going to sting–at least for some folks.
Rich Car Owners Are the Biggest Winners
And let’s remember that the people who see the biggest windfall from flat $30 car tabs–at least in the Sound Transit Taxing District–are the owners of high value cars–cars like Bugattis, Ferraris, Hummers, Mercedes, and Teslas. Folks who own older, cheaper cars may save a little money upfront, but not nearly as much as wealthy owners of flashy new cars. And meanwhile congestion will get a lot worse, and road and bridge maintenance funding will suffer in many parts of the state. Moreover, I-976 will increase the incentive to own and operate a car, increasing climate emissions. This is climate delay.
Despite being very visible and reviled, the motor vehicle excise tax (better known as car tabs) was the most progressive tax in Sound Transit’s toolbox, and the State Legislature put it there, valuations and all. The wealthy pay more, the poor tend to have low-value cars with considerably lower tabs, and the carless can avoid the tax entirely. Now we have a more regressive society with less transit funding, more climate inaction, and another tax break directed largely at the well-heeled.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.