Community Transit wants vehicle excise tax back

OLYMPIA — Community Transit leaders want to resurrect one of Washington’s least popular vehicle taxes to fund the return of Sunday and late-night bus service.

They are asking state lawmakers for the ability to seek voter approval for a 1 percent excise tax on motor vehicles.

Bills granting Community Transit the authority it seeks are wending through the House and Senate, and Monday, the transit agency’s chief executive along with supporters, argued their case to the House Transportation Committee.

This bill “allows us to put before our voters the question of whether they want to support our transit district with some revenue,” said Community Transit CEO Joyce Eleanor.

“Transit is key to Snohomish County,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, author of legislation in the House.

Demand is rising, but Community Transit has been forced to cut routes because it lacks money, he said. This is an option which could reverse the trend in a significant way, he said.

A motor vehicle excise tax isn’t the most popular idea. Voters expressed their disdain for it in 1999 when they passed Initiative 695 to eliminate most of the car tab tax. While a court tossed out the measure as unconstitutional, lawmakers and then Gov. Gary Locke moved swiftly to pass a law wiping the tax from the books as voters desired.

Initiative 695 author Tim Eyman of Mukilteo cautioned lawmakers against pursuing this “totally corrupt” tax rejected by voters.

“I think this is very much a Pandora’s box of a revenue source,” he said. “Once you open up that door, you won’t be able to get off of it. It’s one voters have said no to over and over again.”

But Darrell Chapman of Edmonds, a union leader representing the Snohomish County Workforce Development Council, said he’s betting voters in the transit district won’t oppose it.

“It is a necessity to get our transit district fixed,” he testified to the House panel. “Give the Community Transit the authority to run a ballot measure and let the people decide. If they tell us no, we’ll look somewhere else, but I’ve got a funny feeling they’ll tell us yes.”

This is the third straight year Community Transit is lobbying lawmakers for help in dealing with the effects of declining revenues and increasing demand for service.

The system relies on sales tax for about 60 percent of its income and fares for another 21 percent. When the recession hit in 2008, sales tax revenues tumbled and are far from returning to pre-recession levels.

In response, the transit district has raised fares three times, most recently Feb. 1. There also have been layoffs and a 37 percent cut in service, including elimination of buses on Sundays and holidays.

“We did everything we could to cut our budget before we cut service,” Eleanor told the House panel.

A 1 percent excise tax works out to $200 annually for a $20,000 vehicle and would generate an estimated $27.8 million a year for Community Transit, according to a fiscal analysis prepared by transportation committee staff.

The boundaries of the transit district encompass most of Snohomish County minus Everett.

“Would we go for the full 1 percent? Probably not,” Eleanor said.

Past lobbying efforts failed in Olympia partly because the agency wanted its board of directors to be able to impose a fee or tax without going to voters. This time they’ve adjusted their sights and made any increase contingent on voter approval.

Meanwhile, Community Transit could benefit from a $10 billion statewide transportation package proposed by House Democrats. That proposal, which faces an uncertain fate in the Legislature, could provide the transit agency with about $4.3 million a year, according to its authors.

It’s too soon to know if both the vehicle excise tax and transportation funding package will pass this session. Community Transit could benefit more with its own bill than as part of the statewide effort proposal.

“We’d be happy with either,” Eleanor said. “This (excise tax) bill is designed just for us. The public would know exactly what they’re voting on and for what.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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