NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, October 27th, 2020

With I‑976 kaput, transit advocates focus on navigating out of the coronavirus pandemic

Ear­li­er this month, the Wash­ing­ton Supreme Court ruled Tim Eyman’s I‑976 uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. This was the right-wing sabo­teur’s lat­est con against vot­ers, which promised cheap vehi­cle fees with no men­tion of any consequences.

The poor­ly con­ceived ini­tia­tive was nev­er like­ly to with­stand judi­cial scruti­ny; we have been point­ing out the ini­tia­tive’s glar­ing vio­la­tions of Wash­ing­ton’s Con­sti­tu­tion since Eyman qual­i­fied it to the bal­lot in 2018.

The deci­sion strik­ing down Ini­tia­tive 976 in its entire­ty was wel­comed by advo­cates for free­dom of mobil­i­ty. In a state­ment, Andrew Kid­dle of 350 Seat­tle’s Trans­porta­tion Team not­ed: “The Wash­ing­ton Supreme Court’s rul­ing pro­vides much need­ed relief for tran­sit pro­grams all over our state, and gives a boost to healthy, cli­mate-friend­ly, safe, and afford­able transportation.”

A coali­tion of local gov­ern­ments, tran­sit agen­cies, and pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions went to court eleven months ago to put a stop to I‑976 after Keep Wash­ing­ton Rolling’s efforts to defeat the decep­tive­ly word­ed mea­sure at the bal­lot fell short.

With I‑976 now kaput, pro­gres­sives have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to go back on offense and pos­i­tive­ly influ­ence trans­porta­tion pol­i­cy in Wash­ing­ton State.

While need­ed and wel­come, the rul­ing against I‑976 is a defen­sive vic­to­ry that needs to be built upon, NPI allies heav­i­ly involved in the I‑976 fight say.

The Tran­sit Rid­ers Union, Cli­mate Solu­tions, and Wash­ing­ton ADAPT were all pleased with the Court’s rul­ing, but empha­sized the need to resume mak­ing progress on fund­ing mul­ti­modal trans­porta­tion infrastructure.

“The court’s deci­sion to over­turn Eyman’s I‑976 is a win for tran­sit rid­ers and for every­one in Wash­ing­ton State who ben­e­fits from a func­tion­al trans­porta­tion sys­tem — and that’s all of us,” said Katie Wil­son, gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the Tran­sit Rid­ers Union. “It’s also a win for democ­ra­cy, affirm­ing the rights of vot­ers in cities and trans­porta­tion dis­tricts around the state to make their own deci­sions about how to fund trans­porta­tion improve­ments and pub­lic tran­sit. Now it’s time to get to work. Ful­ly fund­ing an equi­table, sus­tain­able trans­porta­tion sys­tem will be essen­tial to our state’s eco­nom­ic recov­ery from the COVID-19 recession.”

“Over­turn­ing I‑976 is a win for any­one who rides tran­sit and wants safer streets, hates pot­holes and con­ges­tion, and wants clean air and a healthy cli­mate,” stat­ed Vlad Gut­man-Brit­ten, Wash­ing­ton State Direc­tor for Cli­mate Solu­tions. “The Wash­ing­ton Supreme Court restored vot­er-approved tran­sit ini­tia­tives. Now that this sor­ry saga is behind us, it’s time to focus on invest­ing in the sus­tain­able, afford­able, equi­table trans­porta­tion sys­tem Wash­ing­ton needs.”

“The Wash­ing­ton State dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty will ben­e­fit from the I‑976 deci­sion if these funds go to more acces­si­ble pub­lic tran­sit ser­vices,” said Janine Bertram of Wash­ing­ton ADAPT. “I‑976 would have left dis­abled tran­sit rid­ers around the state strand­ed. 30 years after the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act was signed, we still have inad­e­quate ser­vice and dys­func­tion­al ele­va­tors. It’s long past time to make our trans­porta­tion sys­tem acces­si­ble to all.”

The post-976 trans­porta­tion pol­i­cy land­scape will be close­ly linked to the state’s recov­ery from the nov­el coro­n­avirus pandemic.

With­out a final rul­ing to go on, the Seat­tle City Coun­cil opt­ed to go with a sales tax only trans­porta­tion levy this year. The levy seeks to pre­serve fund­ing for sup­ple­men­tal bus ser­vice and oth­er trans­porta­tion improvements.

Coun­cilmem­bers are now dis­cussing reau­tho­riz­ing all or part of the city lev­el vehi­cle fee that I‑976 unsuc­cess­ful­ly tried to repeal to aug­ment the levy.

The Trans­porta­tion Choic­es Coali­tion was also hap­py about the out­come of the case. It called the rul­ing “a win for tran­sit,” but not­ed that the pan­dem­ic and the uncer­tain­ty lead­ing up to the rul­ing have tak­en a toll on tran­sit funding.

Wash­ing­ton present­ly relies on a mix of vehi­cle fees, gas tax­es, tolls, fer­ry fares, and bus/train fares to fund its trans­porta­tion system.

Although low income fam­i­lies can qual­i­fy for reduced bus and train fares, the sys­tem is not based on abil­i­ty to pay, which is a problem.

Lack of sta­ble fund­ing results in ser­vice cuts, per­pet­u­at­ing social dis­rup­tion and harm­ing the envi­ron­ment by forc­ing peo­ple to drive.

Cuts take a long time to restore.

And once cuts get imposed, it gets hard­er to con­vince vot­ers to fund a dilap­i­dat­ed tran­sit sys­tem, as we’ve seen in Pierce Coun­ty with Pierce Transit.

Unre­li­able sales tax fund­ing has also been a pain point for Sound Tran­sit. In the Pierce and South King sub­ar­eas, the Great Reces­sion caused a severe rev­enue short­fall which neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed the agen­cy’s plans to extend Link light rail to Fed­er­al Way. That project has now moved for­ward to the con­struc­tion phase thanks to a sig­nif­i­cant infu­sion in fed­er­al money.

Oth­er Sound Tran­sit 2 projects are also hum­ming along — light rail to Red­mond is under con­struc­tion and so is light rail to down­town Lynnwood.

But the agen­cy’s abil­i­ty to deliv­er its ST3 projects (approved in 2016) is imper­iled due to the reces­sion induced by the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. Vot­ers autho­rized Sound Tran­sit to bring light rail to Issaquah, Everett, and Taco­ma; put a bus rapid tran­sit line on I‑405; and expand Sounder and ST Express.

Vot­ers in Sound Tran­sit’s juris­dic­tion chose to stay the course last year by reject­ing Ini­tia­tive 976. That vote of con­fi­dence was good news for Sound Tran­sit. How­ev­er, the agency will like­ly need fed­er­al mon­ey to get its ST3 projects built and built on time. Fed­er­al mon­ey has been essen­tial to build­ing most of Sound Tran­sit’s Link seg­ments thus far and will be just as impor­tant to the ST3 lines.

Amtrak’s Cas­cades ser­vice has also been hurt by the pandemic.

Due to the bor­der clo­sure, it has­n’t run north of Seat­tle for months. Dai­ly trips between King Street Sta­tion and Ore­gon are half of pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els. COVID con­cerns mean that many poten­tial rid­ers sim­ply dri­ve and take I‑5 instead.

To safe­guard free­dom of mobil­i­ty for Wash­ing­to­ni­ans, the Leg­is­la­ture must act deci­sive­ly to mod­ern­ize our tax sys­tem and strength­en trans­porta­tion funding.

Tran­sit is infra­struc­ture. Wash­ing­to­ni­ans today ben­e­fit from that invest­ment through employ­ment. Wash­ing­to­ni­ans tomor­row will thank us for pro­vid­ing them with more envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly options for get­ting around.

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