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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.