Debate over car tabs in Washington heads to state Supreme Court

With the debate over pricey car tabs in Washington continuing to rage, that dispute will soon make its way before the state's Supreme Court.

Come Sept. 10, the Washington State Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by taxpayers against Sound Transit, first reported back in January by KIRO Radio's Hanna Scott. The suit alleges that Sound Transit violated the state's Constitution when it gained the go-ahead from the Legislature in 2015 to get voter approval to increase car tab tax rates.

Those rates shot up in the wake of ST3's approval in 2016, with drivers across King, Pierce, and Snohomish County seeing their car tab prices increase by hundreds of dollars yearly. Opponents have argued in the past that the 1990s-era depreciation schedule Sound Transit uses to calculate those tabs is deeply flawed.

This latest lawsuit claims that Sound Transit is obligated to return hundreds of millions of dollars collected from car tab taxes since ST3 was first implemented.

Sound Transit claims the argument against it in the lawsuit is "factually and legally wrong," noting that a loss of funding from car tabs could have wide-ranging consequences on a handful of its most significant projects.

Outside of this lawsuit, it's been estimated an upcoming voter measure that would reduce car tabs to a $30 flat rate would have a $20 billion impact through 2041 if it passes, the combination of collecting $6.95 billion less in car tab revenues, and shelling out $13 billion more in higher interest costs in future transactions.

"It's local, it's regional, it's state funding. Many people are not aware that Amtrak Cascades is principally funded by vehicle fees, and if this initiative passes, Amtrak Cascades will be gutted," said Andrew Villeneuve with the Northwest Progressive Institute. "That includes our rail service to Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the most important services our State Department of Transportation operates."

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