RapidRide heads north on SR-99 just after the Aurora Bridge. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
Councilmember Alex Pedersen argues low income housing and new growth should be confined to frequent transit arterials, such as Aurora Avenue, pictured here. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

The Washington Supreme Court wants the constitutionality question for Initiative 976 settled for good and sooner rather than later. Yesterday the court issued a ruling bypassing the Court of Appeals and taking up the case itself on an expedited schedule. Final briefs are due June 19th, oral arguments will begin shortly thereafter, and a final ruling is possible before Labor Day. In the meantime, implementation of I-976 remains on hold.

Tim Eyman branded I-976 as the $30 car tab, but left out the part about the massive turmoil his initiative’s passage has wrought on transportation agencies across the state–who saw a major source of funding evaporate. Incidentally, misleading ballot language was one of the grounds those agencies used in challenging the measure.

Rulings so far have been a mixed bag.

Plaintiffs won an injunction back in November by showing the immediate harm 100,000’s of hours in transit cuts would inflict and a likelihood of prevailing on the legal questions. The Washington Supreme Court upheld that injunction in December. In March, King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson ultimately ruled most of I-976 was constitutional–except for the provision requiring private company Kelley Blue Book determine the valuations for car tabs. However, in order to reduce confusion, Judge Ferguson temporarily kept the injunction in place until the Washington Supreme Court weighed in.

The plaintiffs appealed directly to the Washington Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and keep the injunction in force. Settling the question would allow transportation agencies certitude in their budgets rather than continuing on in limbo as the case drags on. If the Washington Supreme Court rules I-976 unconstitutional and beyond saving, it would never go into effect. Or a different ruling might clear a path for the cuts to take place.

With all levels of governments facing major revenue shortfalls due to the recession unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the I-976 cuts would come at a terribly inopportune time. The outcome of the I-976 challenge could determine if transit cuts reach catastrophic levels or if car tabs could be a budgetary lifeline amid a crisis.

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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.