Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Third time's a charm? Voters consider car-tab fees again with Initiative 976

A sign directing people to vehicle licensing and registration in Bellevue
Simone Alicea

Washington voters are once again seeing an initiative on their ballot that aims to lower the cost of car tabs. Initiative 976 seeks to repeal state and local car-tab fees to bring them to a flat $30. The initiative also directly targets Sound Transit.

While the premise of the initiative may seem straightforward, opponents have been sounding the alarm. They say the initiative would obliterate funding for transit and other transportation improvements.


Tim Eyman is the sponsor of I-976. Eyman is a career initiative filer who has made car-tab fees one of his main targets.

"It really bothers people that it's not the $30 that they voted for over and over again previously," Eyman said.

In 1999, voters passed Eyman'sfirst car-tab fee initiative with 56 percent of the vote. The issue came up again in 2002. Voters passedthat initiative with 51 percent of the vote. Court rulings and subsequent changes to state law have since weakened the effect of those initiatives. 

The big driver behind Eyman's latest effort is the passage of Sound Transit 3 in 2016. That measure allowed the agency to collect additional car-tab fees, as well as property and sales taxes, to pay for light rail and other transit projectsin King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Even though voters approved the measure, it caused some sticker shock for vehicle owners when it went into effect two years ago.

"We taxpayers are really getting shafted," Eyman said.

In addition to the fees themselves, Eyman also is targeting the valuation schedule Sound Transit uses to calculate vehicle licensing fees. Some state lawmakers also have tried to amend that schedule, saying it's out-of-date and over-values some vehicles. But legislative efforts stalled during the session this year.

"If you think this is dishonest, if you think this is inaccurate — the Legislature has had two-and-a-half years to fix it, they haven't done it — here's your chance to do it yourself," Eyman said.

Eyman argues if agencies want to add transit, they'll have to spend more efficiently.


There is a big coalition opposing I-976. In addition to civic groups and transit advocates, dozens of elected officials and local governments have come out against the initiative. They say I-976 would decimate funding to improve traffic and repair roads across Washington state.

"People may think they're saving a few dollars here or there," said Alex Hudson with Transportation Choices Coalition. "But what they will experience is the loss of those dollars through longer commutes, increased costs of car maintenance and repair, as well as just the time lost with their families."

Voters may have approved similar initiatives twice before. But 2019 is not 2002.

The Puget Sound region has seen a major population increase and an increase in traffic congestion to go with it. At the same time, the Seattle area is one of few places in the country where transit ridership is growing.

In 2002, there was no light rail. Voters have approved two major Sound Transit expansions since then. Trains to Northgate and Bellevue are coming online in just a few years.

"I think the analogy of trying to compare this initiative to the past, it's not even apples-to-oranges," Hudson said. "It's apples-to-vegetables."

Hudson says a more relevant historical comparison is voters' rejection of transit initiatives in 1968 and 1970.

"Let's make sure we're not making that same mistake again," Hudson said. "I don't think people want to look back two years from now as they're stuck in congestion, their bus isn't coming, and ask themselves whether or not it was worth the extra 'savings' that they're making on their car tabs."

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.