Burbank: ST3 car tab rollback threatens light rail to Everett

By John Burbank

The Legislature is wrapped up in discussions about how to fund (or not) K-12 education. But if you look under the covers, you will see that these very same elected representatives and senators are intent on defunding Sound Transit 3.

Instead of simply abiding by the voters’ approval of the tax increases necessary to fund mass transit in the Puget Sound area, they are engaging in a bipartisan attack on the election results.

Last November we approved Sound Transit 3, with over 54 percent support for the taxes necessary to build out our light rail system. To finance this, voters ratified Sound Transit’s financing plan, which increases property taxes by $25 per $100,000 in assessed value, hikes sales taxes by one half of 1 percent, and increases annual car-tab fees by about $80 for a vehicle valued at $10,000.

That money will enable Sound Transit to complete a 108-mile light rail network from Everett to Tacoma. By 2040, Sound Transit and its regional transit partners, including Community Transit, will carry more than 200 million passengers, with 7 out of 10 trips made by rail, most of those by light rail. That is the key, because light rail is dependable, doesn’t get stuck in traffic, and takes you to where you want to go, or at least close by!

During the campaign, Sound Transit was completely transparent about the taxes. We all knew that our car tabs would increase a lot in 2017 to help fund Sound Transit. So when the first invoices arrived, the vast majority of people just paid their tabs. But a vocal minority, with big tabs from expensive cars, took their displeasure to Olympia, hoping that the Legislature would listen to their stories and disregard the will of the people.

Now we have a bipartisan attack on Sound Transit, with both Republicans and Democrats offering proposals for defunding. The Republicans in the Senate are straightforward. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, would allow cities and counties to opt out of all Sound Transit taxes. With this one bill, the Republicans enable any city to pull itself out of Sound Transit, regardless of how its citizens benefit. Free rides for all! This bill also appears to be a moneymaker for Tim Eyman, as it enables local initiatives to void all taxes paying for Sound Transit.

In this context, the Democrats’ proposal in the House of Representatives doesn’t look so bad. But it is not good. It too undermines the vote of the people last year and the financing necessary for building out Sound Transit. Twenty Democrats in the House of Representatives endorsed the Sound Transit 3 ballot initiative. Now they are proposing to lower car tabs for motorists who have bought cars recently, and especially for those who have bought the most expensive cars. This is what is considered “providing fair tax relief for motorists.”

Do Democrats think they can win votes from the complainers who do not want to pay their car tabs for Sound Transit? The Democratic proposal does not roll back car tabs to where they were last year. So if you are going to complain, you will complain about your car tab increase whether it is $100 or $200 or $300.

One owner stated that he was billed three times as much as what he paid last year. His total bill was $406. Under the Democrats’ bill, it will be around $275. He won’t like that either.

But let’s stick with the law as approved by the voters. $406 sounds like a lot. Now consider his vehicle: a 2010 Range Rover, with a sticker price of over $76,000. If he can afford a car that is valued at twice the total annual earnings of typical workers in our state, then he can afford his car tabs. They cost him $1.11 a day.

Under the Democrats’ bill, if passed, car tabs for this fellow would be 75 cents a day. He would save 36 cents a day and Sound Transit would lose 36 cents a day.

That’s not much, but you add together all these reductions, and Sound Transit loses $780 million in car tab fees. This will result in a total loss of $2 billion over 25 years, a loss of four percent of the total budget for Sound Transit 3, worth about 4 miles of light rail track. Perhaps the light rail to Everett would end at Paine Field. You could take a taxi to downtown!

John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at john@eoionline.org.

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