Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman darts across traffic Tuesday in Bellevue, after he stopped to shake hands with a motorist who honked at him as he waved a sign supporting Initiative 976, which would cut most car registration tabs to $30 in Washington state. If passed by voters, the measure would leave state and local governments scrambling to pay for roads and other transportation projects. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman darts across traffic Tuesday in Bellevue, after he stopped to shake hands with a motorist who honked at him as he waved a sign supporting Initiative 976, which would cut most car registration tabs to $30 in Washington state. If passed by voters, the measure would leave state and local governments scrambling to pay for roads and other transportation projects. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Editorial: Questions remain after voters demand $30 car tabs

With the state facing an infrastructure debt, how should we pay for the roads and transit we need?

By The Herald Editorial Board

The people — at least those who bothered to return their ballots — have spoken.

While ballots remain to be counted, with Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 leading with 55 percent of the vote following Tuesday night’s count, it’s all but certain the initiative has passed.

Voters made clear they don’t want to pay more than $30 each year to renew their vehicle license tabs. But that decision leaves open a raft of questions about what happens next, including:

How state lawmakers will address a significant loss of revenue and how the Legislature will reprioritize certain transportation projects in the state, and specifically in Snohomish County;

How Sound Transit will respond, and what this will mean for ST3 — which would lose a significant part of its revenue — and extension of its Link light rail system to Everett and other locations in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties;

How cities, such as Everett, already facing structural budget deficits, will make up for the loss of road maintenance and transit funding provided through Transportation Benefit Districts;

And most significantly, how state residents want to pay for highways, bridges, roads, ferries, transit and other modes of transportation on which our economy depends.

Unless successfully challenged in courts, the reduction of car tab fees to $30 from as much as hundreds of dollars per vehicle will significantly reduce state and local transportation revenue. For the state’s 2019-21 transportation budget, revenue from licenses, permits and fees accounts — before I-976 — for nearly 24 percent of that revenue. The balance includes about 54 percent from gas and diesel taxes and about 22 percent from ferry fares, tolls and other sources.

That loss of revenue complicates two other realities for the state and its transportation needs.

First, state lawmakers are unlikely to seek another increase in the gas tax to make up the difference. At 49.4 cents a gallon, the second highest in the nation, legislators had already turned to using tenths of a cent to avoid hitting the four-bit mark that would raise the ire of voters as much as car tabs have. And state transportation officials have spent the last few years investigating a replacement for the gas tax — a road usage charge — with the gas tax’s bang for the buck dwindling as vehicles have become more fuel efficient and more motorists turn to hybrids and plug-in electric cars.

Second, the state — like the rest of the nation — is facing what’s been called the technical debt.

Like the national debt that has grown as Congress and presidential administrations have borrowed to pay for spending above what the government collects in taxes, the technical debt respesents the spending that’s been put off that would have maintained and upgraded infrastructure.

Writes Alexis C. Madrigal, recently in The Atlantic:

“For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books.”

The best example of the technical debt, Madrigal writes, is still burning in California, as one of the state’s major electric utilities, Pacific Gas & Election, must now choose between risking that its poorly maintained electrical lines could spark deadly and damaging wildfires when the winds kick up or shut off power for days to tens of thousands of residents.

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts the nation’s technical debt at $3.6 trillion to get infrastructure back to an acceptable condition; that’s more than $10,000 for every woman, man and child in the U.S. The civil engineers association, in its recent state-by-state review of infrastructure, gave Washington state an overall grade of C, with roads and transit each getting a C-minus and bridges getting a C-plus.

These issues aren’t meant to question the wisdom of voters in their preference for $30 car tabs. Many no doubt voted for I-976 because they wanted — with good reason — to send a message to state lawmakers and transportation officials that they provide some leadership, transparency and clarity regarding the state’s transportation needs and how those will be paid for.

But, at the same time, state residents — voters and nonvoters, alike — need to offer more direction than what can be inferred from the vote tally on I-976.

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