The Works

Will Washington Voters Love Cars More Than Light Rail?

New ballot measure targets tolls and transit taxes. 

seattle light rail

A Sound Transit train travels between Mount Baker and Columbia City stations. (Photo by Oran Viriyincy)

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Big things are happening with light rail in the Seattle area. Sound Transit, the regional transit authority, recently finalized plans for the third phase of light-rail expansion. Dubbed Sound Transit 3 (ST3), it will add 62 miles of rail to the region over the next 25 years including a line connecting Tacoma, Seattle and Everett, a second Seattle line connecting West Seattle to Ballard through downtown and a line from the east side Seattle suburbs into the city.

To help fund the $54 billion plan, Sound Transit will run a ballot measure this November asking voters to authorize $27.6 billion in new property, sales and motor vehicle excise taxes through 2041. The rest of the funding will come from a mix of existing taxes, bonds, federal grants and fare revenue.

“There’s a lot to like in the package,” says Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. “It’s a good mix of connecting neighborhoods and connecting employment centers. They were able to move up the delivery timeline three to five years. I’m glad to see some of the infill stations like 130th made it in there.”

But, much of that funding plan could be derailed before Sound Transit has the chance to put the new taxes to use. On June 2, longtime Washington anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman introduced a ballot measure called We Love Our Cars that would repeal the motor vehicle excise tax (aka car tabs) increase and eliminate tolled express lanes on two nearby highways.

Eyman responded to a request for an interview by providing a press release about the initiative.

It says, “Vehicle owners are being overtaxed by all levels of government. Taxes, fees, tolls and other charges on vehicles are overwhelming. There is a war on cars and it’s time for the people to fight back … Initiative 869 gives struggling taxpayers the chance to fight back by sending a message to politicians that we’re sick and tired of being overtaxed.”

Eyman filed We Love Our Cars as an Initiative to the Legislature, meaning if he can collect nearly 250,000 signatures by the end of the year the measure will be sent to the state legislature for adoption. If lawmakers don’t, the measure will be on the November 2017 ballot for voter consideration.

This is the second initiative he’s introduced this year. The first, called Bring Back Our $30 Car Tabs would have gone on the 2016 November ballot and also hurt Sound Transit’s ability to expand light rail. Eyman gave up on that initiative, telling Everett’s Daily Herald it “never took off.”

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick says if passed, We Love Our Cars would “significantly reduce the ability to build projects if they are approved by regional voters this November. Also, we are relying on our existing 0.3 percent MVET to fund transit projects and services already approved by voters in 1996 and in 2008.”

According to Ranganathan, the MVET accounts for about $6.9 billion of expansion funding, roughly the cost of Seattle’s second rail line from West Seattle to Ballard.

Eyman has a long history of anti-tax initiatives, many of which target transportation funding. He has run over 20 ballot initiatives since 1997. Two of them sought to eliminate the motor vehicle excise tax entirely and were passed by voters before being overturned as unconstitutional. His other transportation initiatives include a measure requiring 90 percent of transportation funding be dedicated to roads (defeated by voters), diverting general funds to pay for roads (defeated by voters) and eliminating carpool lanes and mandatory signal timing (also defeated at the ballot).

“The region has moved ahead in their support for transit,” Ranganathan says. “That’s why he’s called it We Love Our Cars. This is an underhanded way to go after Sound Transit.”

She says she’ll be keeping an eye on Eyman’s initiative, but ultimately is not too worried. “He’s had so many initiatives tossed out by supreme courts and lower courts. I don’t even know if it’ll make it that far [with this initiative],” she says.

Instead, Transportation Choices is focused on making sure voters support ST3 in the fall.

“We’re going to work really hard to make sure it passes,” Ranganathan says. “The agency has done some public polling that shows there’s robust support for the investment. Looking at the new Link light-rail line, it is enjoying really good ridership increases. There’s an appetite in region for more good, high-quality transit.”

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Josh Cohen is Crosscut’s city reporter covering Seattle government, politics and the issues that shape life in the city.

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Tags: transportation spendingseattlelight railcars

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