Democratic legislators are reexamining legislation that would lower car tab fees, reducing funding for Sound Transit and potentially delaying the expansion of light rail around the region.
According to the News Tribune, State Sen. Marko Liias, (D-Lynnwood) said the party is looking at a range of ways to lower car tab fees, but also limit the hit to Sound Transit’s bottom line.
“I’m not with the transit advocates in believing that this is sort of the sky is falling and we’re not going to get light rail,” Liias told The News Tribune. “But I also am convinced based on everything we’ve seen over the last year it probably makes sense to just have a conversation about how we make sure light rail gets to Everett and Tacoma like it’s been promised.”
Last week the House tabled plans to vote on HB 2201, which passed easily out of the chamber last year with both Democratic and Republican support.
The bill adjusts the rate of the motor vehicle excise tax Sound Transit collects. ST3 uses a motor vehicle excise tax schedule from the 1990s, which many have criticized as inflating the value of cars and increasing the cost of renewing car tabs.
If passed, ST estimated the agency would lose $780M in direct funding over the next 11 years, with indirect financial impacts, such as higher debt costs, costing Sound Transit nearly $2.3B. Voters passed the $54 billion transit package in 2016.
Liias told The Seattle Times that options to mitigate the reduction in funding could include “more favorable terms when it [ST] needs to lease state land for rail-line rights of way, legislation to streamline permitting, or even looking at a $500 million fund through which Sound Transit contributes to education funding.”
Seattle Subway has called for “Democrats to show a backbone and stand up for transit.”
“Sound Transit is not safe until the session is over,” said Andrew Villeneuve, founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute. “Funding cuts are a very real threat.”
Legislators are also considering another bill, HB 2357, which would allow car owners with car tabs fees over $200 the option to pay their bill in quarterly or semiannual installments. Drivers choosing this option would also be charged a $5 fee with each subsequent payment.
These bills come at a time when federal funding for Sound Transit projects, including the Lynnwood Link Extension and the Federal Way Link Extension, remains uncertain. The 2018 proposed budget from the Trump administration eliminates funding for a grants program that supports building mass transit.
Meanwhile, the rising cost of property acquisitions and construction is increasing the cost of projects. In August, Sound Transit announced the Lynnwood Link Extension was running $500M over budget due, in part, to real-estate cost overruns and higher than anticipated right of way acquisition costs. In an effort to limit those increases, ST said it would delay the opening of the light rail extension by six months.