We endorse: A ‘no’ vote on I-976. Tim Eyman swings a butcher knife in $30 car tabs rerun

Bringing back $30 car tabs looks pretty good on a bumper sticker. It definitely stands out on a T-shirt the color of a traffic cone, which Washington initiative promoter Tim Eyman wears at virtually every public appearance. It’s part of Eyman’s familiar salesman shtick as he tries to wangle support for Initiative 976.

Twenty years ago when Eyman first put it on the ballot, $30 car tabs was a populist slogan masquerading as public policy. Today’s version is a retread that could wreck our state’s modern transportation system.

There’s no question that reliable roads, bridges and public transit are essential to Washington’s economy and quality of life. So there’s no question that voters should reject I-976 in the Nov. 5 election.

Eyman is counting on short-term gratification and political payback to carry the day. If the flat-rate car tab is approved for a third time and finally survives judicial review, vehicle owners would certainly enjoy paying cheap excise taxes at tab-renewal time. (Ridiculously cheap, since the $30 throwback fails to adjust for two decades of inflation.)

Many would also relish sticking it to Sound Transit three years after a voter-approved, $54 billion tax package sent car tabs soaring to unexpected heights.

But Pierce County residents would pay a steep long-term price that Eyman avoids talking about:

Roads and bridges would fall deeper into disrepair. Arteries connecting industries to the Port of Tacoma would stay clogged. Unfinished transit projects would disrupt communities.

Eyman’s overriding goal is to sabotage Sound Transit; in a speech to a Republican group, he once said he loved that $30 car tabs would “gut” the agency “like a pig.” But with I-976 he’s wielding a butcher knife so indiscriminately, he’d bleed transportation projects at every level.

Statewide, the transportation budget would incur a nearly $5 billion loss, affecting everything from the State Patrol to the ferry system to the long-awaited completion of state Route 167 to the Tacoma Tideflats.

In Pierce County, nearly a dozen communities — as large as Tacoma and as small as Carbonado — would lose their transportation benefit district funding. TBDs, duly approved by locally elected leaders, generate needed dollars for local traffic projects.

In Tacoma, officials estimate a $3 million annual drop in TBD revenue, which equates to 80 residential blocks of street work.

And then there’s Sound Transit, in the center of Eyman’s bullseye. Pierce County taxpayers have helped fund major Sound Transit infrastructure up north since the ‘90s, waiting our turn, stuck at the end of the line. Planning’s now on track to extend light rail to Tacoma by 2030, and Sounder commuter service to Tillicum and DuPont by 2036.

If I-976 passes, however, Sound Transit would take a $7 billion hit. Guess what happens to those at the end of the line when an agency is suddenly starved of funds?

Eyman took his show on the road to the Tacoma City Council Oct. 8. He criticized Sound Transit and the Legislature during public testimony ahead of the council’s unanimous vote to oppose I-976.

“I think what really gnaws at people is the dishonesty of this particular tax,” Eyman said.

He’s not wrong about that. Owners of newer cars are disgruntled that Sound Transit uses an inflated valuation formula to calculate tabs. Legislators have dithered for three years on plans to provide some relief; they need to get it done in 2020.

But what should also really gnaw at people is the dishonesty of Eyman. He claims the state has plenty of money lying around to overcome his evisceration of vehicle taxes.

We agree with Carl Anderson, a 70-year-old disabled man who also spoke at the Tacoma council meeting. He said I-976 is a direct threat to vulnerable people like him who depend on public transportation to participate in society.

“This measure is an outrage,” Anderson said.

Indeed, it is. Voters should resist Tim Eyman’s recycling of a simplistic slogan. They should reject his latest effort to break Washington’s transportation backbone. And $30 car tabs should be buried in a time capsule, along with that orange shirt.