Bus services, city of Blaine brace for cuts after I-976 passes

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Local agencies aren’t yet sure how the passage of Initiative 976, which caps car tab fees at $30, will affect Whatcom County transportation services and infrastructure, but they expect there will be some impacts.

The initiative, passed statewide by voters with a 53 percent yes vote in the November election, repeals and reduces certain motor vehicle weight fees, repeals the authority for city transportation benefit districts to impose vehicle fees, reduces electric vehicle fees and repeals the 0.3 percent tax on motor vehicle retail sales, among other things.

The Washington State Office of Financial Management told the Associated Press that the initiative could reduce state and local revenues by more than $4 billion over the next six years.

In Whatcom County, the measure could potentially mean cuts to Whatcom Transportation Authority bus services, the Lummi Island ferry and funding for rural roadwork and other transportation projects.

The city of Blaine has more than a dozen projects in its six-year Transportation Improvement Plan that rely at least partially on funding from state car tab fees, including sidewalks on Peace Portal Drive from F Street to Clark Street, resurfacing Semiahmoo Parkway and building another phase of the community trail along Peace Portal Drive south of Bell Road.

The initiative’s biggest impact is to the Bell Road grade separation project, “arguably the most significant public infrastructure project planned in the city for the next decade,” according to a city council draft resolution opposing the initiative. That project would construct an overpass above the train tracks at Bell Road to alleviate traffic backups caused by passing trains.

“We have $1.55 million in state funding for that that could be going away,” said city public works director Ravyn Whitewolf. “It’s all still up in the air. The state’s also wrestling with what this all means so right now it’s all kind of speculation.”

The city council had passed a resolution to oppose Initiative 976 at its October 28 meeting.

The local impact of the initiative is not yet clear for several reasons. Seattle, King County and other agencies filed a lawsuit on November 13 that calls the initiative unconstitutional and requested an injunction on November 18 to stop it from going into effect until a judge can rule on the lawsuit. According to the plaintiffs, the initiative violates several provisions of the constitution by being misleading and by disallowing the tax to be used for voter-approved local projects.

A court decision on the injunction was scheduled for Tuesday, November 26.

Beyond that, much of the money the state collects from the fees goes into accounts that also get money from other sources. For example, car tab fees help fund the state’s Rural Arterial Trust Account, which is also funded by fuel taxes and other sources. Since grants funded by the Rural Arterial Trust Account are not linked to specific funding sources within that account, it’s not clear how the loss of one funding source will affect the program overall. 

Governor Jay Inslee directed the state department of transportation to postpone projects not yet underway and asked state agencies that receive funding from car tab fees to defer non-essential spending.

Whatcom Transportation Authority could lose about $1 million per year for paratransit services – special needs transportation for the elderly and disabled. By state law, WTA is required to provide door-to-door transportation to riders whose disability prevents them from riding the fixed route bus system, so it cannot cut those services.

For 2020, WTA can cover the loss of $1 million from its general fund or other funds, said spokesperson Maureen McCarthy. But in future years it may have to reduce fixed route services to make up for the loss, she said.

“We are affected but not nearly as severely as some of our smaller transit peers,” McCarthy said. For some rural bus services, a larger share of their operating revenue comes from state funds. The initiative could reduce transit services in Garfield County, in rural southeast Washington, by 50 percent, according to the Garfield County Transportation Authority.

For car owners, the initiative goes into effect on December 6, according to the Washington State Department of Licensing. Whatcom County residents pay the base rate of $68.25 for cars under 4,000 pounds. That includes a $30 renewal fee, a $4.50 filing fee to the county and $8.75 in service fees, plus a vehicle weight fee of $25 for cars under 4,000 pounds.

Elsewhere in the state, car tabs can cost more than $200. Other counties or cities may have higher fees due to local transportation benefit districts that fund transportation projects. (The city of Blaine has a transportation benefit district that is funded through a local sales tax and does not affect car tab fees.)

Residents of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties pay a regional transit authority tax to Sound Transit.

Seattle is likely the most expensive place in the state to renew vehicle tabs.  Residents there pay the base fee of $68.25, an additional $80 fee for the city’s transportation benefit district that funds maintenance and safety enhancements and a fee to Sound Transit that varies based on vehicle value that could cost an extra $150 for a six-year old car with a $24,000 original retail price, according to the state department of licensing office’s fact sheet on car tabs.

Political activist Tim Eyman sponsored Initiative 976. He’s been working on similar car tab initiatives since about 1998, according to a January 2000 Seattle Times article.

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