Modest car-tab relief should be priority in Olympia

The only light rail in Tacoma today is the short Link loop downtown. A full connection to King and Snohomish counties is planned for 2030 under the Sound Transit 3 measure approved by voters in November 2016.
The only light rail in Tacoma today is the short Link loop downtown. A full connection to King and Snohomish counties is planned for 2030 under the Sound Transit 3 measure approved by voters in November 2016. News Tribune file photo, 2013

For Sound Transit and its backers, the last few months have smiled on plans to extend light rail to Tacoma and build out the mass-transit network in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.

Initiative monger Tim Eyman’s latest scheme to drain billions of dollars from Sound Transit revenues went down with a whimper.

Meanwhile, Democrats have taken control of the statehouse, propelled by November’s special election Senate victory in the 45th Legislative District. The defeated Republican candidate had campaigned on repealing Sound Transit car-tab hikes.

And newly elected big-city mayors, including Tacoma’s Victoria Woodards, have pledged allegiance to Sound Transit’s growth plans and governance model.

With a fair wind at their backs, some Democrats might feel unmotivated to spend precious time in a 60-day session on Sound Transit reform; they might be ready to throw unconditional support to the regional transit agency, ensuring business as usual.

That would be a mistake.

When they convene in Olympia Monday, legislative leaders should resume the debate they had last year over transit tax fairness and accountability.

They must recognize that many voters — including the majority in Pierce County who turned thumbs down to the Sound Transit 3 package in 2016 — still question ST3’s unprecedented $54 billion investment in light rail, Sounder and bus service.

Lawmakers also must not break faith with taxpayers upset that their car-tab fees are calculated using an outdated formula, which inflates the value of vehicles in their first 10 years off the lot.

For the record, our Editorial Board endorsed ST3 and continues to defend it, despite the hefty package of car-tab, property tax and sales tax increases and the distant glimmer of light-rail’s promised Tacoma arrival in 2030. Only by moving more commuters off roads and onto rails can we hope to ease our region’s ever-worsening gridlock.

When Eyman told supporters Dec. 28 that he fell short of the signatures needed to qualify his “Let’s stick it to Sound Transit” measure for the 2018 ballot, he called it “heartbreaking news.” It was anything but.

Initiative 947 was Eyman’s latest destructive attempt to cap vehicle tabs at $30. Not only did it aim to gut funding for Sound Transit and Amtrak Cascades, it would’ve let all Washington voters weigh in on these Puget Sound-funded priorities. It also would’ve wiped out local transportation benefit district fees duly adopted by Tacoma and dozens of other Washington cities and towns.

Chalk it up as another in a series of initiative flops for Eyman. He says he couldn’t afford to pay signature gatherers to push I-947 over the top.

(Naturally, he also parlays the setback into a naked plea for donations, all major credit cards accepted.)

But to the extent that Eyman and other Sound Transit critics, including Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, have kept pressure on legislators to open their ears to popular discontent, those voices should not now go ignored in Olympia.

Last year, House Democrats pitched a modest plan to throttle back the sharp rise in car-tab fees. Under ST3, they soared by about $80 last year for a vehicle valued at $10,000.

Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, proposed recalculating fees based on an updated depreciation schedule, then giving refunds or credits to vehicle owners covering the difference between the old and new formulas.

That wasn’t enough for Republicans, who controlled the Senate last year and helped kill Pellicciotti’s bill. The GOP counterproposal was untenable; it would have cost billions more and blown up ST3 project deadlines. (Light rail in Tacoma in 12 years? Fat chance.)

The Republicans’ nuclear option is DOA this year, as is their dream of having voters elect the Sound Transit board. Good riddance to both ideas. But Democratic leaders, speaking at the AP’s annual pre-session media day Thursday, said they plan to revive and pass Pellicciotti’s proposal, as well they should.

They’d be foolish not to try to tamp down the car-tab outrage. 2018 is an election year, after all.

State leaders will never mollify all the haters who want to “stick it to Sound Transit.” They may not win over many voters feeling buyer’s remorse after ST3. But the least they can do is work for a compromise.