Pierce County is cynical about transportation funding. I-976 results prove it. But there’s a ray of hope

Not surprisingly, a wave of opposition against soaring car-tab fees and multi-billion dollar mass-transit projects made landfall in Washington Tuesday night.

In the 253 area code, it crashed especially hard. While statewide early returns for Initiative 976 show a convincing 55 percent “yes” vote, the results in Pierce County stood at an overwhelming 67 percent support as of Wednesday.

That’s not a wave; it’s a tsunami.

At last, local residents had their chance to exact revenge against Sound Transit, three years after feeling steamrolled by the ST3 tax hike approved by voters in the three-county regional transit area. That $54 billion measure failed in Pierce County but passed on the strength of King and Snohomish voters.

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s vengeance will have a nasty boomerang effect, the likes of which will become more clear in the coming months once the aftermath of I-976 is sorted out — and no doubt challenged in court.

What can we expect by riding a time machine back to the era of $30 car tabs?

Money will be slashed for road projects in several South Sound cities, including $3 million a year in Tacoma. An estimated $1.9 billion in state transportation dollars will be lost over the next six years, impacting everything from ferries and bridges to freeway projects and timely completion of the state Route 167 link to Tacoma. And Sound Transit funding will be upended just as the agency enters the final phase of its light-rail spine; who knows whether service will still come to Tacoma by 2030, as advertised.

Tuesday was a rare good day for Tim Eyman, the anti-tax agitator and initiative pitchman brought low by an ongoing campaign-finance lawsuit pursued by the state attorney general.

But it could lead to a lot of bad days — or rather, years — for Puget Sound commuters stuck in some of the nation’s worst gridlock.

The unmistakable message from election night is that voters are cynical about transportation funding in Washington. And government officials deserve much of the blame for that dark mood.

People are right to be cynical when Sound Transit uses a confounding car-tab formula based on inflated vehicle values, not Kelley Blue Book. They’re right to be cynical when legislators fail to provide relief from that formula, despite having three years to do it.

They’re right to be cynical when a local government (the City of Olympia) bends campaign rules by using taxpayer money to send mailers urging a no vote on I-976.

They’re also entitled to question the price of progress and mourn the possible loss of community treasures — such as the Pick-Quick burger stand in Fife — that stand in the path of proposed light-rail routes.

But amid all the public mistrust, and despite the bad omens for our transportation system, signs of hope can be found.

In Gig Harbor, a city that leans conservative and is historically reluctant to raise taxes, a strong 56-percent majority of voters Tuesday supported an additional 0.2-percent sales tax to fund a transportation benefit district (TBD).

That means the fast-growing city can finally tackle a long list of traffic improvement projects.

I-976 will gut TBDs like Tacoma’s that were approved by city councils and largely funded with car-tab fees. But the initiative doesn’t touch TBDs like Gig Harbor’s that are approved by voters and funded by a different revenue source.

So, yes, there are still tools available for communities to address chronic transportation needs, and there’s still hope that local voters trust their leaders to keep traffic moving.

It may just be a glimmer of optimism, but today we’ll take it.