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Cheaper car tabs could bring lawsuits, standstill in transit projects

SEATTLE — The complaints are many. The fixes are few.

“It’s maddening. It’s infuriating,” said tax gadfly Tim Eyman during a Thursday meeting of the Sound Transit Board.

Recent spikes in car tabs have left some angry, yet others grateful that money will bring light rail and improvement to a system in need.

There are no free rides, but there’s passion for transit.

“Our environment needs these investments, and our economy needs these investments,” said transit supporter Abigail Doerr.

Washington’s lack of income tax and reliance instead on sales and property revenue means the state has to get creative to improve light rail and busing.

Car tabs pay the tab but Blue Book prices aren’t how a car’s value is calculated under state law.

The state is charging more, even though the car is worth less.

“It’s not what they can sell their car for at any given time, you know, it’s based on the formula in state law,” said the Department of Licensing’s Brad Benfield.

But it’s by design to create steady funding to keep projects as on-time as possible.

Sound Transit explained that the tab structure has been in place since 1999 and locks in the higher rates until the bonds end in 2028.

The state Supreme Court even ruled the tab structure couldn’t change until then as it would be a violation of the contract to voters and creditors.

“There’s no room to negotiate,” said board member Kent Keel.

Transportation improvements are messy and sometimes slow but the wild success of Capitol Hill’s light rail and extensions already show the region’s embrace of car alternatives.

Now some lawmakers are trying to blame Sound Transit for a system put in place by lawmakers and voters themselves -- and could cut funding by $6 billion.

“Some would do considerable damage to our revenue stream and to our ability to deliver projects,” said board chairman Peter Rogoff.

The board did pass a resolution to try to partner with upset lawmakers to figure out a way to ease concerns but not put the timeline and funding in jeopardy.

Lowering the tab fees could give folks lower costs now, sure.

But that risks lawsuits, subverts the will of the voters, and could push these projects out decades, making traffic more difficult, but leaving more money in some peoples’ pockets.

The trade-off has to come somewhere -- and the people have already spoken.