Local Election

I-976 would cut “car tabs” to $30, but here’s what officials say will be cut in Whatcom

Initiative 976, the “car-tab” measure on the Nov. 5 ballot, could mean deep cuts for mass transit, road work and other transportation projects in Whatcom County, officials said last week.

Hardest-hit would be Whatcom Transportation Authority’s bus services, funding for rural Whatcom County roads, and for the Lummi Island ferry.

“The most direct impact to Whatcom County will be the loss of (state) Rural Arterial Trust Account funds for rural arterial maintenance and Motor Vehicle Account funds for the Lummi Island ferry,” said Joe Rutan, county engineer and assistant director of public works. “The potential largest impact will be the lack of available grant funds to accomplish much-needed pedestrian and bicycle improvements.”

Rural arterial roads are those like Birch Bay-Lynden, Smith and Hannegan.

I-976, which is sponsored by conservative activist Tim Eyman, would lower annual car registration fees to $30 and end the ability of state and local governments to add taxes and fees without voter approval.

It would repeal current taxes and fees and could cost state and local governments more than $4 billion over the next six years, the state Office of Financial Management told The Associated Press.

Loss of funds in Whatcom County also would include state money for bicycle, pedestrian and rail project grants and Transportation Improvement Board grants, Rutan said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

Jon Hutchings, Whatcom County director of public works, said uncertainty over the potential loss of funds has hampered project planning.

“We don’t know how the reduction in the various infrastructure funding programs will play out, so it is very difficult to plan for,” he said in an email.

Bus service in Whatcom County could also suffer if I-976 passes, said WTA spokeswoman Maureen McCarthy.

McCarthy said in an email that WTA is supposed to receive $1.9 million in state funding for its “special needs” paratransit service in the 2019-2020 budget.

“We also expect to receive $140,000 for a consolidated grant, awarded earlier this year, for a Travel Training Program. We were also awarded a $64,000 grant for new vanpool vans. If I-976 passes, we would not receive these funds,” she said.

She said that I-976 threatens funding for Whatcom Smart Trips programs administered by the Whatcom Council of Governments.

“These funds allow Smart Trips to provide how-to-ride-the-bus education to seventh-graders throughout Whatcom County, as well as how-to-ride training focused on seniors. If I-976 passes, Whatcom Council of Governments would not receive these funds. While these are not dollars that come directly to WTA, they benefit us a great deal,” McCarthy said.

WTA is required to provide paratransit service alongside its fixed-route services, McCarthy said.

“So cutting paratransit service, due to a loss of funding, would not be an option. If we did lose approximately $1 million per year of special needs transportation (paratransit) funding, we’d need to consider reducing our fixed-route service,” she said.

Bellingham transportation projects wouldn’t face the same cuts because they are funded differently, said Eric Johnston, interim director of public works.

“Bellingham also has a transportation benefit district, but it would not lose revenue if I-976 is approved because it receives about $6.5 million per year from a sales tax. The funds are used to maintain arterial streets, which carry traffic from roadways to highways, and for bicycle and pedestrian projects,” Johnston told The Bellingham Herald in an earlier story.

“If you have cars coming from Canada into the city of Bellingham, affecting our transportation network and spending money in the city, that helps spread the cost of supporting that transportation system to those outside the city or the country,” he said.

Nevertheless, Bellingham City Council members voted unanimously last week to oppose I-976.

Council member April Barker, who’s also a member of the WTA board, discussed the likely cuts for mass transit and roads statewide.

“Although it’s only around $1 million for WTA every year, that would have to come out of other services,” Barker said.

Council member Michael Lilliquist said a similar Eyeman measure several years ago caused deep harm to Washington state’s transportation infrastructure.

“(I-976) would really set us back,” Lilliquist said.

Eyman’s $30 car tab initiative first passed 20 years ago, AP reported. It was struck down in court before being enacted by lawmakers. The fees have crept up in recent years as lawmakers allowed them and voters in some places approved them.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.