Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: What would Eyman’s latest initiative do to transit? It’s not good

Matt Driscoll
Matt Driscoll Staff photographer

Prolific initiative pusher Tim Eyman tells me he’s not anti-transit.

But there’s no question that his latest effort, Initiative 869, billed as the “We Love Our Cars” initiative, would significantly hamper Sound Transit’s quest to expand light rail and increased transit services throughout the region.

And all of it is a predictable replay of the car-tab battle he’s been waging for nearly two decades

News of Eyman’s latest endeavor arrived last week, as messages from him so often do, in the form of a long, enthusiastic email addressed to his “thousands of supporters throughout the state.” It was conveniently CC’d to government officials and media hacks like me. (Thanks, Tim!)

“There is a war on cars and it’s time for the people to fight back,” the email railed. “Vehicle owners already pay a huge sales tax when they buy a vehicle and a huge gas tax when they use a vehicle. It’s simply not fair to be triple- and quadruple-taxed for our vehicles.”

There is a war on cars and it's time for the people to fight back. Vehicle owners already pay a huge sales tax when they buy a vehicle and a huge gas tax when they use a vehicle. It's simply not fair to be triple- and quadruple-taxed for our vehicles.

Tim Eyman

Specifically, I-869 — which, if Eyman and his team are successful in collecting nearly 250,000 valid signatures, will go first to the Legislature and then to the November 2017 ballot if lawmakers don’t pass it as written — looks to stop tolls on Interstate 405 and state Route 167.

More importantly, however, it would eliminate Sound Transit’s ability to use motor vehicle excise taxes — or car tab taxes — in the cocktail of revenue sources that would fund ST3, should voters approve the $54 billion transit expansion in November.

For our region’s transit future, this is where the real implications hide.

Not only would the fledgling initiative — which, it’s worth noting, faces a daunting signature requirement — nix the 0.8 percent car-tab increase included in ST3, it would also require early repayment of outstanding bonds and then delete the 0.3 percent car tab tax Sound Transit is currently scheduled to collect until 2028. That’s money also included in ST3’s calculations.

The plot only thickens when you consider voters may be weighing in on Eyman’s initiative after ST3 is passed and the taxes start being collected, but long before most of the benefits are realized.

Among the package’s numerous regional highlights, ST3 will increase Sounder services, eventually connect Tacoma to Sea-Tac airport and Seattle via light rail, and extend a light-rail line to Tacoma Community College. All of the above is desperately needed — sooner, not later. So the outcome of the ST3 vote this November, and now the fate of Eyman’s latest initiative drive, should be of extreme interest to us here in the City of Destiny.

ST3 includes the three main new revenue sources Sound Transit has at its disposal — increases in property, sales and motor-vehicle excise taxes. Collectively, this makes up about half of the $54 billion price tag. The balance comes from grants, bonds, fares and existing Sound Transit taxes.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see the implications of cutting out motor vehicle excise taxes from Sound Transit’s funding recipe would be substantial.

And crippling.

Removing the car-tab taxes would result in nearly a $7 billion reduction in the $27.7 billion in new revenue ST3 hopes to collect between 2017 and 2041, and approximately an $8.1 billion reduction when you figure in the loss of Sound Transit’s existing 0.3 percent car-tab tax. According to Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick, the loss of this money — and, even more, the ability to bond against it — would likely mean a “major reduction” in the scale of projects ST3 could deliver to the region.

If the initiative is enacted … the provisions related to Sound Transit would significantly reduce the ability to build any transit projects approved by voters this November.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick

As Eyman accurately points out, voters have repeatedly cast ballots against car-tab taxes. In his estimation, he’s just (once again) standing up for the will of voters. He refers to car-tab fees as “taxes that don’t have the consent of the governed.” It’s not about where the money goes, he promises, it’s about the unfairness of the car tab taxes themselves.

“They’ve decided to go for the maximum amount on every single one of them,” Eyman says of the taxes included in ST3. “It’s a sign of hubris. … When it comes to Sound Transit, it just seems to have this insatiable appetite. It’s like a black hole. No matter how much money you give them, it’s never enough.”

Those are good talking points, many of which I have no doubt will resonate with initiative signers across the state.

But even if Eyman’s not anti-transit, as he insists, his “We Love Our Cars” initiative — and what it would accomplish — can be interpreted no other way.