Yes, I firmly support mass transit, and I’m happy to pay for it.
Yes, I voted for Sound Transit 3, and I’d do it again.
Well, gee, this is awkward.
How do I put this delicately?
Probably best to just cut to the chase: In selling the public on Sound Transit 3 — the $54 billion transit package voters approved in November — proponents weren’t exactly as explicit as they should have been about its costs to drivers.
Specifically, people who own newer vehicles — many of whom are crying foul now that car tabs are coming due — have a point about the unfairness of the outdated method used to calculate fees, no matter how much transit advocates like me or big-city progressives might wish they didn’t.
Chances are, you already know the backstory here. Sound Transit 3 included a property-tax hike, a sales-tax hike, and — last but not least — car-tab fee increases. Together, these taxes will help Sound Transit generate roughly $28 billion in revenue over the next 25 years, funding some $54 billion in transit projects through the magic of bonding.
It will pay for big, important, transformative things — like expanding light rail throughout the region, including a line connecting Tacoma to Federal Way and beyond.
But to get there, the car tab fees use an old formula that significantly overestimates a vehicle’s value in its first 10 years of life, leading to the “sticker shock” that many drivers have complained of. As David Gutman of the Seattle Times detailed back in February, for a 2014 Toyota Camry with 30,000 miles on it, that means a difference of nearly $9,000 between a Kelley Blue Book value of $10,700 and the value Sound Transit uses, $19,090.
And when it comes time for a driver to pay for those tabs, it’s the difference between ponying up $117 for Sound Transit 3 and roughly $209.
Hence, the predictable outrage.
Last week, The News Tribune’s Melissa Santos wrote an informative piece headlined “How did Sound Transit 3’s inflated car-tab fees slip by lawmakers?”
It’s an important question, with largely unsatisfying answers: For the most part, lawmakers who are now feigning surprise and dismay should have been paying more attention, because it was all there to be found. The idea that they were deceived, or misled, or somehow tricked into allowing Sound Transit to ask what it asked of voters is, at best, not a great look for those we elect to represent us.
$54 billionTotal cost of Sound Transit 3
But for voters, the question Santos posed is equally as important. And it’s far more difficult to fault average citizens for feeling duped.
Largely, the disconnect points back to shortcomings in the Sound Transit 3 campaign.
In explaining Sound Transit 3’s mélange of funding sources, proponents typically relied on the average cost to voters.
Was it accurate? Sure. But did it tell the whole story, in precise detail?
I think we know the answer.
Yes, it was fair for Sound Transit to estimate the cost to be about $169 per adult per year, or roughly $14 a month. And it was also fair for the agency to cite the average car value in Snohomish, Pierce and King counties of $10,135 when estimating the average cost of assessing Sound Transit 3’s car tab fee increase of about $80 for a vehicle valued at $10,000.
But here’s the problem with the word “average.” Everyone thinks it applies to them. Just look at how many Americans identify as “middle class,” even though data suggest they’re anything but.
Then, for fun, take a look at the nearest parking lot and estimate how many of the vehicles you see are newer than 10 years old, or worth more than $10,135 in the eyes of Sound Transit 3’s outdated valuation.
Yes, just as with lawmakers, all this nuance was out there to be found by scrupulous voters. Even the fact that Sound Transit would rely on a vehicle valuation dating back to the 1990s — and not the updated valuation lawmakers adopted in 2006, which will kick in for Sound Transit 3 after 2028 — was never exactly hidden by the agency (though it wasn’t the first line of the press release, either).
There was even a website where people could calculate, precisely, how much Sound Transit 3 would cost them.
Raise your hand if you visited that site.
The information was available for people. ... Now did they look? No, because there’s soccer practice and mom’s birthday and the rest of life. They just didn’t do that. Right? So, yeah, I think they were surprised, and that’s why I think that it’s appropriate to have some response to that.
Governor Jay Inslee
“The information was available for people,” Gov. Jay Inslee recently told a meeting of The News Tribune’s Editorial Board, referencing the website.
“Now did they look? No, because there’s soccer practice and mom’s birthday and the rest of life,” the governor continued. “They just didn’t do that. Right? So, yeah, I think they were surprised, and that’s why I think that it’s appropriate to have some response to that.”
For now, that response seems obvious: Scrap the outdated car tab fees formula while figuring out a way to deliver the projects voters in the Puget Sound region strongly supported. As Inslee went on to insist, “I think there’s a way to do it that will not result in diminishing the completion of this package. I think we can have our cake and eat it too here, which I think is a good thing.”
It’s also the right thing.
And, in the future, the lesson for Sound Transit, or any agency seeking a tax increase of this degree, is equally clear: Be explicit.
And if doing so would likely lead to difficulties at the ballot box?
Well, how do I put this delicately?