By Transportation Choices Coalition

The 2017 Legislative Session has been incredibly challenging for Sound Transit. On the heels of the passage of Sound Transit 3 in November, the agency has had to defend a host of bills designed to dismantle the voter approved plan and change its governance structure. Last Friday, the Senate passed ESB 5893 which slashes Sound Transit’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax authority from 1.1% to 0.5% among other things. TCC opposed that bill.

TCC Executive Director Shefali Ranganathan

In the House, legislators are considering a relatively more modest proposal, HB 2201 which will create a $780M direct revenue gap in the Sound Transit 3 finance plan or an estimated $2.3B impact once you factor in higher borrowing costs. This bill was passed by the House Transportation Committee and seems well on its way to approval by the House as chronicled by the blog here.

Let’s recap for a quick moment how we got to this point. In 2015, as part of a deal on the Connecting Washington Transportation package, the Legislature granted Sound Transit the taxing authority to seek voter approval for a transit expansion plan. At the same time, it voted to approve an increase in the gas tax to fund road projects without requiring a public vote. It was a deal that advocates including Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) made for a chance to complete the high capacity transit system that has eluded us for nearly 60 years.

Fast forward to 2016, hundreds of meetings and tens of thousands of public comments later, the agency put forth a $54B transit expansion plan the details of which has been discussed in great depth on this blog.  A grueling six-month campaign ensued and despite the best efforts of the opposition spearheaded by the Seattle Times, voters approved the plan by nearly 54%. The Puget Sound region finally embraced its transit destiny. Or so we thought.

As 2017 kicked in, higher MVET renewals started appearing in mailboxes, a media feeding frenzy ensued, and anti-transit legislators seized the opportunity to attack the voter-approved plan and the agency. TCC which led a broad coalition of business, labor, transportation, environmental and social justice advocates to pass the ST3 responded with a broad strategy which included an on-the-ground staff presence in Olympia, a joint coalition letter signed by 26 business, labor and community groups, and thousands of emails and petitions to legislators urging a measured approach that does not derail projects.

Yet here we are, battling bills that jeopardize projects, in the name of tax payer relief.

TCC cannot support HB 2201 as it is currently proposed. We appreciate the need to address tax payer fairness and find reasonable solutions that do not impact voter-approved projects.  We suggested improvements to the legislation to address tax fairness for working families while keeping voter-approved projects on track including:

  1. The reimbursement or credit should only be provided to cars valued at or below $30,000, providing relief to middle and low-income families who need it the most.
  2. Find solutions to reduce the $780 million revenue gap created by this bill, either by limiting the tax adjustment to working families or other policy options that address the loss of revenue to Sound Transit.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much traction to move these changes forward.

Let us pause for a moment to consider the irony – the most progressive taxing source available to pay for transit, the MVET, is being undermined in the name of fairness in a state that has the most unfair tax system in the nation (Seattle Times $). That a measure approved by 700K residents which took three years and an incredibly robust public dialog to shape, can be so easily be scuttled by so few.

It will be easy to point fingers and assign partisan blame. Instead I encourage you to consider the following – transit is under attack at the federal and state level. Transit funding is being politicized for bigger battle – the control of the State Legislature. We should be careful to separate the policies from the politics. Voters want more light rail to more places. It is why ST3 passed last year. Now more than ever transit advocates and our broader coalition will need to stick together to defend our gains at the ballot. I urge you to join us in our fight by signing up for updates and opportunities to engage with your elected  representatives to hold the line on transit.

49 Replies to “Holding the Line for Transit”

  1. I’m usually a big TCC fan. I think TCC did a good job running this ballot measure and making ST3 the will of the voters. Winning ST3 gave transit supporters a stronger negotiating position than it appears you think you have.

    You point out there is a 2.9 multiple to true impact. It leads me to be pretty baffled. Why do you suggest that you support any revenue gap at all?

    Find solutions to reduce the $780 million revenue gap

    1. I think it’s obvious their read of the political climate suggests they see ST taking a hit, and trying fight to minimize it is a better use of political capitol than a hail mary against any hit at all. It’s frustrating if true, but I tend to trust their political instincts (my own were to underestimate the threat of the Times’ deeply cynical shenanigans.)

      1. I don’t think you’re following me. My hypothesis is that they don’t think keeping ST entirely whole here is possible, not that they think it will cost them a lot of political capital. You don’t bet if you’re drawing dead.

    2. To be clear, they have the votes in the House to pass the bill. It passed out of committee with Republican support. The Senate has already passed a much worse bill. That ship of “do not harm” sailed a while ago for a variety of political reasons beyond our control. The House is trying to be in a stronger negotiating position with the Senate so that they can hold the line on further harm to ST. It also speaks to a larger issue of how little leverage transit has in Olympia despite repeated successes at the ballot box.

      1. Now is the time to contact your representative. It is out of committee, but it hasn’t been voted on by the house.

        This bill is here because people mad about the gas tax got in touch with their representatives and complained. We need to do the same.

      2. Shefali;

        As to,

        It also speaks to a larger issue of how little leverage transit has in Olympia despite repeated successes at the ballot box.

        I think this is a conversation that needs to happen and need not be painful. There are too few transit users getting elected to office. Too few transit advocates willing to get FIRED UP about transit. TCC is too Seattle-centric and needs to grow. Just as WPC can find a mainstream media microphone around the state, TCC needs to do the same – and then better.

        OK, points for each item if fellow commentators are:

        *Actively serving on a transit advisory committee (4)
        *Applied to serve on a transit advisory committee but did NOT make the cut (3)
        *Donate to Seattle Transit Blog monthly (2)
        *Donate to TCC monthly (2)
        *Give presents to transit staff (2)
        *Speak at public comment periods (2)
        *Wearing transit swag (1)
        *Write pro-transit comments on a blog (1)

        If you got more than eight points, you’re part of the solution. If not, resolve to change that.

      3. Ms. Shefali,

        Thank you for all that you do for rational transportation in Washington. It’s a oddly uphill battle for a place which yammers on and on about how much it loves the outdoors.

        And then wants to pave it.

        I think your vote counting on this is spot on. The House has done its best to minimize the harm to come. But you can be sure that the cuts allocation list will be directly reversed in the Senate with cuts to Link at the top of the list and garages protected. Garages are good because they make the hippies walk farther to get to the train, right? Heck, let’s make ’em walk through the garage like at the airport; maybe a few will get run over.

        Well, the rubes are going to strangle the golden goose if they don’t wake up pretty quickly, and then they’ll actually have to pay for their own roads and schools.

        The most delicious bit of irony is that those folks out in the ‘burbs who are so incensed about the relatively minor tab increase are the ones who are going to lose the largest amount on their house values — literally a score or more times as much — when the tech industry gets fed up with them and decamps.

        Schadenfreude, sweet schadenfreude.

      4. I deeply apologize. “Ms. Ragnanthan”, not “Ms. Shefali”. Bad, very bad; and no edit box.

  2. Something probably needs to be done about the MVET situation to mitigate future undesirable political outcomes. Unfortunately, a lot of people live beyond their means. Therefore, a measly few hundred bucks once a year is a shock to them and outrages them — makes them feel robbed. Also, I’m curious how progressive the MVET really is. I see a lot of very nice cars outside run down apartment complexes. Is there actual data?

    1. Something probably needs to be done about the MVET situation to mitigate future undesirable political outcomes.

      This statement becomes more accurate if you replace the word “future” with “current”. I don’t think it helps much for the future. Whether the next cynical tax revolt against transit the Seattle Times/Tim Eyman come up with is successful will play out on its own terms there’s no defensive move in advance that’ll protect us from it.

      1. Continued and vocal education about mobility, why more cars are not the answer and tax fairness. Getting people to stop thinking in merely selfish terms.

        In all of this drama, I don’t recall seeing any spokesperson from TCC or any advocacy group (including the ones I’m involved in) show up on camera to talk about this. It’s all been about the outrage of car tabs, and the legislature falling all over themselves to appease “angry voters.”

        The legislature needs to be reminded that a majority of voters approved this transit measure and they shouldn’t be changing the rules after the fact in a way that harms or delays the voters desire to build our future mobility.

        Those lobbying in Olympia need to have activated their supporters to be visible and vocal at the beginning of this debacle instead of simply negotiating from a weak position.

    2. ST didn’t want an MVET in the first place because it’s so radioactive, and it tried not to use it, but when the overwhelming public feedback to its 15-year plan was “Go bigger”, it had no choice but to use it to fit all the high-demand projects into the 25-year plan.

  3. The $30,000 limit sounds good in the abstract, but creating a huge marginal tax rate cliff at one point makes for a PR problem: “this hard working single mom who just bought a new $35k Kia pays the full rate, while this tech bro driving a 2 year old BMW valued at $29k pays only a fraction!

    Yes, the new Kia will drop into the lower rate category as it depreciates, but if you’re having to resort to trying to explain that you’ve already lost the messaging battle.

    1. Can’t you just cap the rebate at, say, $200/car/year? (I’m not sure what the correct number would be to correspond to $30,000)

      So the $35K Kia gets 85% of their rebate.

  4. I’ve learned that it is easier to kill a bill in Olympia than to fix it. The only purpose I see in amending HB 2201 is to give Democrats cover for their total cave-in to the Republicans’ original demand to use the 2006 MVET formula. But that cover will help pass the bill. The bill is still bad. This bill is still bad with the amendment. Why not just spend less effort killing it?

    If we want a rebate for low-income car owners, that can be done as a separate bill. Let’s call it HB 2148.

  5. I’d like to hear the story about why the original authorizing legislation was written to require the use of the old and discredited MVET formula, instead of the later and fairer version. A major case of political malpractice occurred there, IMHO. This whole debacle could’ve been avoided with some savvy players at the table back then.

    1. The sympathetic explanation is that the 2015 legislature was most concerned about not invalidating the existing bonds and didn’t think it was that important if the new bonds used the old formula. The unsympathetic explanation is that some savvy legislators were setting ST up to fail.

  6. The thought has occurred to me that the old MVET was deliberately designed to be inaccurate. Overvaluing new cars and undervaluing old cars seems is progressive, much like higher marginal income tax rates for high incomes than low incomes. If that was deliberate, than it’s unfortunate that it was communicated to the public as being the value of their cars.

    Seems to me that a better option be to keep the current MVET and just give people a credit based on their gross income. Something like your gross income in thousands is the % of the MVET you have to pay, up to 100%.

    Of course, the ship has sailed on making improvements, I guess we’re stuck with either the Senate bill or House bill unless Inslee vetoes them.

  7. The hundred percent likely blockage on all our freeways every working day will only get exponentially longer in both linear space in time. And packed tight even tighter.

    So isn’t there a good chance that about a third of the way into this project if not sooner, the Legislature, with a lot of new faces, will be in a different state of mind when they revisit this question?

    Meantime, who do you think would oppose a program of automatically deducting forty or fifty dollars a month from taxpayers’ accounts? Exactly like Comcast? I really think a lot of the humanly understandable upset will go away.

    Mark Dublin

  8. The hellishly ironic thing is, that in a few years when the lack of funding causes major projects to be curtailed or timelines lengthened, I’m pretty sure WA republicans will be lining up to decry how ST is incapable of getting projects done on time and budget. The R’s are a caricature of the rich, mean banker dude in It’s a Wonderful Life, and apparently spend their time in Olympia trying to figure out how to make every Seattleite’s life just a little worse each day. And now, the D’s are complicit in their evil doings.

  9. Well TCC;

    First, I love you guys. I love ST3. I wear “Mass Transit Now” t-shirts to Skagit Transit meetings. I sleep next to a “Mass Transit Now” poster.

    Second, we need more TCC, more places. You guys really should be involved well north of Seattle. Obviously south too. What you’re seeing now is what happens when you’re WAY TOO DAMN SEATTLE-FOCUSED.

    Third, I got a real fear somebody is going to try for a statewide initiative on this. I don’t want Clark County or Spokane County voting on ST3 – and if that means LESS PARKING, you should be applauding. If that means less wasteful commuter rail, OK. We will still get sexy light rail. Our offense has still got a lot of time (and money) to deliver.

    Sort of like you/TCC SHOULD please be working to get transit advocates directly elected to transit boards. But I digress.

    Bend, don’t break. That’s my message. I’d rather take this deal than roll the dice. But let me clear: Come 1 July 2017, I expect the whining to stop. ST3 is to press on. Elections have consequences.

    Very respectfully;

    Joe

    1. Sound Transit has limited exposure to statewide initiatives. Tim Eyman found this out the hard way.

    2. Elections have consequences.

      That’s a strange takeaway from this particular disaster. What we’re learning is they don’t, really, if the right people whine about it.

  10. I hold out hope this bill can still be killed in the House and if not that the Governor will veto.

    What concerns me more is the campaign I see ramping up to scuttle ST2 projects. There is already a lot of noise coming from the right about East Link using the I-90 express lanes, the recent cost overruns, and Mercer Island’s lawsuit. Mark my words this will be the next bullet flying Sound Transit’s way. While I don’t think it will be as successful as the attack on the MVET it will still prove a distraction and may drag out the timeline for East Link completion.

    After that, expect Sound Transit to take a lot of flack if the Federal grant money for Lynnwood Link, Federal Way Link, and other projects goes away. Again I don’t expect much success but “The hits just keep on coming” may unfortunately put the agency in the sort of crisis it was in the 2000-2002 time frame.

    1. The crisis in 2000 was caused by overoptimistic cost and risk estimates. Since then ST’s estimates have been very conservative. It keeps a strong cash flow so it can make bond payments even if there’s another crash like 2008. That’s why the timeline is so long and the budget is so high: ST wanted to include everything that might reasonably go wrong. If the MVET is slashed and the federal grants don’t materialize, then ST will defer projects but it won’t melt down.

    2. Chris,

      I think we will have a lot of moral authority to tell certain whiners where to quit crying or realize this can go the other way… you know, there are some initiatives & referendums that became law we don’t like either.

      Joe

  11. I think TCC and SeattleSubway should go on record, if this bill becomes law they will support primary challenges against all of the representatives who voted in favor. This should include districts outside King, Pierce, and Snohomish.

    It also should be pointed out that the priority for cuts is clearly red meat thrown to rabid rail boosters to pacify their opposition to a funding cut. And the priority hurts suburban residents more, but hey their cars get cheaper to own in traffic.

    1. As I posted in the other thread, Seattle Subway should use the monorail authority to get the signatures to build Ballard to UW (the folks here don’t seem to think that the West side transit tunnel would fit) if this effort to weaken ST3 passes.

      1. This isn’t about Seattle. It’s the legislature overturning the will and desires of a majority of voters in the ST district. Where are the lawyers on this?

      2. Jack,

        Yes, it very much is about Seattle. The folks who stayed in Des Moines when free spirits went to California and got laid MUCH more are still pissed about it. Any chance they get to rack up the young ‘uns is like catnip to them.

    2. Yes! I want this batch of Democrats gone. They are Republican-lite. WA deserves real progressives.

      If you want to change policy, sometimes you have to throw out the old guard and bring in people who get it.

      1. That’s funny. That was the argument for voting for Hillary Clinton in the primary. We HAD to vote for her, or the Republicans would win.

        No matter what, there’s a risk that the republicans will win. It’s irrational to think that establishment democrats are a safe bet.

        My feeling is also that this car tab thing was mostly cooked up by the Seattle Times. I’m sure candidates got calls from anti tax people. They always do. The only real survey of voter attitudes was the ST3 vote itself.

        We had a noisy minority overrule the majority.

      2. That’s great, but the relevant question is “what’s the most progressive candidate a plurality of voters in suburban Pierce county are willing to support?” not what you or I would prefer they support.

      3. Keeping in mind these are districts that voted against ST III.

        You go to politics with the electorate you have, not the electorate you wish you had.

    3. We don’t have partisan primaries any more. Only “top two”, and that’s among candidates listing their political party “preference.” System designed by incumbents to protect incumbents.

      1. No, it was a bottom-up change to favor centrists. Washington voters are persistently skeptical of parties and don’t want parties limiting their freedom. We had a blanket primary for many years where people could vote for anybody regardless of party. The parties got that thrown out saying it was an infringement on their freedom of association (i.e., to not associate with non-members, or not let non-members choose their cadidates). That led to a series of changes in the primary system. First one favoring the parties, then one favoring the voters, then one favoring the parties again, and then our current system. In all cases the voters argued for freedom, and the parties argued for anti-freedom (for voters). The current system is a variation of the “Louisiana Primary” where the top-two primary winners go to the final regardless of party. This favors the most popular individuals, and prevents the minority party from taking one of the two ballot spaces when a more moderate person from the majority party gets more total votes. That’s fairness according to the will of the majority and to individuals, the only way it can possibly be considered unfair is to the parties’ structures, and the party’s “right” to a ballot spot. In a state that’s historically populist and skeptical of parties and party control, that’s a hard sell.

  12. It boggles my mind how much mis-information there is about Sound Transit. I was talking to someone just the other day who was talking about how sleazy ST is for “deceiving” the voters, and that if they wanted to, they could make up the lost revenue easily, just by cutting staff.

    This person seemed completely blind to the fact that ST posted an online tax calculator before the election, so people could look up exactly what they would pay, and that the MVET formula didn’t even come from ST, but from the legislature, and Sound Transit used it because that was the only formula that the state allowed them to use, and that the cost of administrative staff is negligible compared to the cost of building light rail.

    The fact is, it feels good to be bashing government agencies and talk about they’re all corrupt, incompetent, and wasting our money. But, rationally speaking, when you bash something, you need to have evidence to back it up. You can’t just call an agency incompetent simply because it feels good to call them incompetent.

    1. VERY WELL SAID!

      Ballot title on MVET: ” additional 0.8% motor-vehicle excise tax”. Nothing about MVET depreciation. Nothing hidden about the tax rate increase.

      OK, the MVET got adjusted. Time for the die hards to move along.

  13. Frame’s e-mail response on why she supported the bill–can we get an STB writer to run against?:

    Thank you for writing me about your support for Sound Transit. I am writing you this evening as I sit on the House floor. I just cast my vote for EHB 2201 and I want you to know why, and what the bill really does.

    This bill helps to address an issue of fundamental fairness without compromising transit projects. I proudly supported Sound Transit 3 (ST3), and our district voted for it with an overwhelming majority. Our voters were more than happy to tax themselves to make an investment in a transit system that will be a game changer for generations to come, and connect the 36th District’s own Ballard to the rest of region by rail. However, they expected those taxes to be assessed fairly. And what doesn’t feel fair to many voters is to have taxes assessed against an inflated valuation of their car – a valuation they know isn’t accurate and doesn’t reflect reality.

    For the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET), EHB 2201 instructs Sound Transit to “buy down” the difference between the 1996 valuation schedule and the 2006 schedule, the latter of which more closely tracks to the commonly used Kelley Blue Book valuation. The difference would be credited on the car tab bill (or refunded if already paid). The total difference is about $780 million. This is a difference we believe Sound Transit can absorb over the next 10 years given they budget conservatively and have delivered previous projects on time and under budget.

    To be clear, the bill does NOT do the following:
    –It does not force Sound Transit to use the newer car tab valuation schedule (so we do not put ST’s bonding at risk).
    –It does not reduce (or change) the valuation used to calculate car tabs.
    –It does not force Sound Transit to cut projects. In fact, we’re telling them not to.

    We are telling them not to cut light rail projects by prioritizing the order by which they can make cuts at all. Specifically, they have to cut parking garages and other projects long before they get to cutting light rail.

    This is the ONLY solution on the table that strikes the right balance, ensuring light rail and other ST3 projects are protected while providing fair tax relief to motorists. Other proposals want to gut billions out of Sound Transit, effectively killing public transit expansion in the Puget Sound. Sadly, we believe Republicans will continue to try to use this issue as a political football to dismantle Sound Transit. House Democrats are working every day to protect the promise made to voters when they approved ST3 last November.

    EHB 2201 ensures light rail expansion will continue for generations to come. We must continue moving forward with expanding light rail across our region. ST3 grows our transit infrastructure, creates jobs, attracts businesses, and gets workers to their places of employment. The transit system we are building will get people around our region faster and safer.

    Thank you for writing, and please so not hesitate to reach out again on this and other legislative issues.

    Best,
    Noel

    1. This is a difference we believe Sound Transit can absorb over the next 10 years given they budget conservatively and have delivered previous projects on time and under budget.

      I thought I was angry before I read this, but I had no idea. This is beyond disgusting.

      “Don’t worry, no harm done here, because this responsible government agency budgets conservatively, which gives us the opportunity to steal their contingency funds. Remember, it’s that other party who doesn’t believe in good government and wants it to fail.”

      My response to Congressperson Frame, my neighbor, whom I supported, can’t be printed here because of this blog’s editorial policy. Many residents of the 36th would stand to benefit from the 130th street station, which she just helped to put in seriously jeopardy and then lied about doing so. I sincerely hope she has a serious challenging in 2018, someone who’s actually serious about supporting transit.

      1. Seattle just got a wave of more urbanist councilmembers. That points the way. Joe’s passion for elected transit boards would be more effectively channeled to recruiting and supporting candidates for the existing state/county/city offices. But we hit a hard block when most of us live in Seattle and the critical seats are in the suburbs and outside Pugetopolis. That’s where transit activists as a whole need a larger footprint: throughout the ST district and beyond it. But it becomes a chicken-and-egg thing: the best people to recruit people are those who live in those outer areas. STB has a few staff who currently or previously lived in the suburban subareas, but the number of total suburban activists is few. During the ST3 debate we looked far and wide in Snohomish for activist groups supporting canceling Sounder North and opposing the Paine Field detour and couldn’t find any.

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