Voter approval this week of I-976 reducing Washington car tabs to $30 promoted Governor Jay Inslee to postpone all Washington Department of Transportation construction projects in the pipeline, but not started yet.
The initiative vote creates an estimated $4 billion hole over the next six years in state and local transportation budgets, casting doubt on any Washington financial participation in planning for an I-5 Columbia River Bridge replacement. A majority of Clark County voters approved the initiative.
The good news is $35 million to study a bridge replacement design was included in the legislatively approved FY 2019-2021 budget and isn’t immediately affected by the initiative or Inslee’s construction project postponement. The bad news is Washington lawmakers will need to pick up the pieces of transportation investment when they reconvene early next year by reshuffling transportation investment priorities or trying to patch the hole left by I-976.
While a final vote tally won’t be available until ballots postmarked November 5 are counted, the measure pushed by Tim Eyman is comfortably ahead and likely to pass. King County, one of only five Washington counties where a majority of voters opposed the initiative, is considering a legal challenge. The City of Seattle is also likely to pursue legal action.
The initiative centers on the complicated way Washington calculates vehicle registration fees. “Fees are different for every situation and are calculated many ways,” according to the Washington Department of Licensing. “Everyone starts with the basic fees of $43.25 and things like vehicle weight, location, and taxes determine your final amount.”
Eyman, a long-time anti-tax activist, said his initiative combats “dishonest vehicle taxes” and repeals “artificially inflated vehicle valuations.” “We’re already paying huge sales taxes when we buy a vehicle and huge gas taxes and tolls when we use a vehicle – we shouldn’t be forced to pay triple taxes just to own a vehicle,” Eyman wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed. He claimed state officials knew there was a problem, but they were afraid to fix it.
The campaign in opposition to I-976 stressed its negative impact on transportation projects statewide and on local transit agencies. The Washington State Office of Financial Management estimates passage of I-976 will slash $1.9 billion in state revenue over the next six years and $2.3 billion in local governments in that same period. Sound Transit predicted it would lose $7 billion in revenue between 2021 and 2041 and faces the prospect of canceling bonds based on car tab revenues.
Inslee said, “It is clear the majority of voters objected to current car tab levels. It is also clear that this vote means there will be adverse impacts on our state transportation system. Accordingly, in response to the will of the people, I have directed the Washington State Department of Transportation to postpone projects not yet underway.”
The constitutionality of the initiative may be challenged by King County on the basis that Seattle-area voters in 2014 approved a measure that included a $60 million vehicle license fee to pay for transit service expansion and ensure “low-income transportation equity.” “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,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.