Democrats have supported changes to car tab fees that could cut funding for light rail.
Democrats have supported changes to car tab fees that could cut funding for light rail. Sound Transit

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State Senator Marko Liias says Democrats in the state legislature are now looking for ways to lessen the effects of cutting car tab taxes on Sound Transit.

Over the last year, advocates, pundits, and lawmakers have debated how to address the fact that Sound Transit uses inflated car values to calculate car tab taxes. Those taxes will help fund current and future light rail projects including expansion over the next three decades to Ballard and West Seattle. Not content to let Republicans monopolize the anti-tax moment, Democrats in the state capitol have promised to give some drivers a rebate on their increased car tabs. Their preferred bill would cost Sound Transit $780 million directly and $2.2 billion with increased borrowing costs, according to the agency. While that's a small chunk of Sound Transit 3's $54 billion total, transit advocates have questioned Democrats' willingness to chip away at rail even as they now control both houses of the legislature. Advocates and Sound Transit have also argued lawmakers should backfill any cuts they approve with another funding source.

Now, Liias says Democrats will still pursue a refund plan but will look for ways to try to lessen the hit to Sound Transit, reports the Tacoma News Tribune's Walker Orenstein:

Liias said Democrats are unlikely to make enormous strides toward either pro-transit groups or Republicans looking to offer an even bigger break on car-tab fees to drivers. He said he expects Democrats to keep the existing rebate plans in the bill but look for ways to reduce the impact on Sound Transit.

One of those options could be to see if there are less expensive ways for Sound Transit to build in state-owned right of ways, Liias said.

“I’m not with the transit advocates in believing that this is sort of the sky is falling and we’re not going to get light rail,” Liias said. “But I also am convinced based on everything we’ve seen over the last year it probably makes sense to just have a conversation about how we make sure light rail gets to Everett and Tacoma like it’s been promised.”

Liias, who represents Lynnwood, told the TNT he's reconsidering asking Sound Transit to absorb the full $780 million to $2.2 billion in cuts because of federal funding uncertainty due to the Trump administration.

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It's clear Liias and other Democrats are still intent on some sort of car tab cut. But without more specifics, it's hard to know whether Democrats will fully backfill the cuts they're causing to Sound Transit or whether it will only be a partial fix.

The Transportation Choices Coalition reports that their lobbyists expect Democrats to hold off on their original plan and introduce a new bill. Representative Mike Pellicciotti, who sponsored the original rebate plan, told the TNT he doesn't expect Liias's effort to "fundamentally" change his bill. Another Democrat, Representative Kristine Reeves, is sponsoring a bill to allow drivers to pay their car tabs in installments, but would not tell The Stranger whether she still supports the rebate plan.

The current legislative session ends in March.