Judge Puts Washington's Transportation-Busting Initiative on Hold

Washington state voters expecting to see their vehicle registration fees drop to $30 on Thursday due to the passage of Initiative 976 on Nov. 5 might have to wait much longer after a King County Superior Court judge put the measure on hold.

3 minute read

December 3, 2019, 12:00 PM PST

By Irvin Dawid


"Voters across Washington [last] month approved Initiative 976, which attempted to lower many vehicle registration fees to $30, roll back car-tab taxes that fund Sound Transit and do away with local car-tab fees," reported Heidi Groover for The Seattle Times. It passed with nearly 53% of the vote. The measure was set to take effect on Dec. 5.

That means vehicle owners across Washington will be expected to pay existing higher fees for now. State tax collectors, meanwhile, will set aside some of those fees in case they later have to issue refunds.

Title of ballot misleading

Confusion over voter-approved local car tabs (vehicle registration fees) led King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson to issue the junction on Nov. 27. Doug Trumm, publication director for The Urbanist, a Seattle-based nonprofit, reports:

“The ballot title states that ‘voter-approved charges’ are excepted from the $30 limit on motor vehicle license fees, but Section 2 of I-976 indicates that only charges approved by voters after the effective date of I-976 are excepted from the $30 limit,” Judge Ferguson wrote in his decision [pdf][. 

“In other words, all existing voter approved charges are apparently extinguished by I-976, even though the ballot title suggests that all voter approved charges, past or future, survive I-976.”

However, the ballot title and summary were assigned by the state Attorney General's office, as opposed to the initiative's author and promotor, Tim Eyman, and now a gubernatorial candidate. Attorney General Bob Ferguson (no relation to the judge indicated), who is defending the initiative on behalf of the voters, "is filing an emergency appeal asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the lower court's decision," reported Melissa Santos of Crosscut. "The state is asking the high court to instead let the initiative go into effect as scheduled."

State transportation cuts to take effect

"In Olympia, state lawmakers said they would move ahead as if the measure was taking effect despite the ruling," adds Grover. "If the initiative takes effect, it is expected to cut about $478 million in state transportation revenues over the next two years."

Under instructions from Inslee, the Washington State Department of Transportation has put dozens of roads and transit projects that are not yet underway on hold while lawmakers adjust state budgets.

The [court] fight could also further scramble the upcoming state legislative session, where lawmakers will have to reconsider state transportation spending and some Republicans are already demanding legislators enact the tax cut regardless of legal challenges.

King County transit cuts put on pause

Trumm reports that the "175,000 hours worth of transit service cuts in the county" will be spared and that "Sound Transit got an even bigger reprieve" in terms of the initiative's impact on the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax collected by the transit agency, which was not a party to the suit filed by King County, Seattle, and several others groups and one individual.

Update: Grover reports on Dec. 2 that AG Ferguson filed an emergency motion with the state Supreme Court to let the initiative take effect as intended on Thursday.

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to Tim Gould.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019 in The Seattle Times

Aerial view of homes on beach in Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii Passes First Legislation Regulating Short-Term Rentals Statewide

The new law will give counties the power to limit number or short-term rentals and convert existing short-term rental units back into long-term residential housing.

May 13, 2024 - USA Today

Entrance to a drive-through car wash at night with green 'Enter' sign.

Ohio Towns Move to Ban New Car Washes

City officials in northeast Ohio are putting limits on how many car wash facilities can open in their towns.

May 16, 2024 - News 5 Cleveland

Rail tracks on the left, rustic log-built train station painted reddish brown with a green metal roof and concrete platform on the right, evergreen forest and bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds in the background.

More Passenger Rail Coming to Montana

Planning is underway to restore a 45-year-defunct regional passenger rail line connecting southern Montana to Billings and Amtrak’s east-west Empire Builder line from Seattle to Chicago.

May 14, 2024 - 8KPAX

Apartment For Rent Sign

HUD Proposal Would Soften ‘One-Strike’ Policy

Formerly incarcerated people are often barred from publicly subsidized housing, putting them at higher risk for homelessness and recidivism.

2 hours ago - Truthout

Water flowing through Glendale Narrows section of Los Angeles River in Glendale, California with a concrete bridge, power lines, and hills in background.

Los Angeles County Making Progress in Stormwater Capture

During this “super year” of storms, L.A. County has successfully captured 96 billion gallons of stormwater which is enough to meet the needs of about 2.4 million people a year.

3 hours ago - Los Angeles Times

Aerial Texas Hill Country at sunset, with an aerial view of a highway interchange and Interstate 35 in Austin, Texas.

The True Cost of Texas Highways

An explainer of the monetary, environmental, and social costs of exuberant road building.

4 hours ago - KERA News

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.