The passing of Initiative 976, Tim Eyman’s bill to limit all car tab fees to $30, is expected to have many impacts on the region. For Issaquah, major city plans are now in jeopardy.
Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly said she was unhappy with the results. Tax revenue previously anticipated from car tab fees was set to fund several area transportation projects, most notably Sound Transit expansions, as well as traffic mitigation efforts.
The Issaquah City Council had recently voted to oppose I-976, taking a stance and encouraging voters not to support the measure. At that time they highlighted potential negative impacts for Issaquah.
“It’s a significant disappointment. I have a background in civil engineering and transportation, and I really want to be part of the solution on how to make this city and this region work better,” Pauly said. “I had assumed that we were on a path to building light rail extensions and Issaquah was going to be included in that and there was a funding source. So I’m pretty disappointed right now.”
She provided some background information, explaining that options for growth and development in Issaquah are limited. Some 10 years ago or so, she said the city realized there’s just no space left to grow.
“We sort of reached our limit of having land available,” Pauly said.
She talked about the Central Issaquah Plan — the plan for growth and development in the city to take place on the valley floor, and its land use planning and environmental review process. She said the plan’s environmental impact statement had two key mitigation components the city had to achieve in order to carry out the plan: secure some sort of mass transit, and build an additional Interstate 90 under or over crossing. Such a crossing could cost an estimated $80 million, so the city would not be prepared to tackle that project on its own.
“Both of those things are necessary in order for the valley floor to develop going forward,” she said.
Pauly said the plan was adopted in 2012, and it was presumed that Issaquah could grow on the valley floor if those two projects happened.
When the public voted to pass the Sound Transit 3 expansion, it was a list of projects and the funding source, which was primarily going to come from car tab fees, Pauly said. As part of that expansion, the plan is for the East Link Light Rail to expand to Issaquah in the year 2041.
“We were very excited when that happened because that was one of the key projects that would help us be able to improve people’s mobility around town right now and as we grow,” Pauly said. “But, we’re at the end of that package. We’re one of the last projects in Sound Transit 3.”
Now, Sound Transit projects not yet funded would need to find another source of funding to proceed as planned. The transit agency warned voters that if the initiative passed it could cost them more than $20 billion in funds and push ST3 completion back 20 years.
Although 2041 is still a long way away, Pauly said planning for an Issaquah light rail station would actually have taken place in the next five years as far as location and type of station. She said the city also hoped to perhaps be able to combine the light rail project with getting an over or under crossing, thus creating an efficiency and saving money.
“The council took the position to oppose I-976 because if there is no funding for light rail, and light rail doesn’t come, that is very disheartening because, while the community and the public and the residents and the taxpayers want to have more transportation improvements, you also have to have money to do it,” she said.
She said that right now the next steps for city council are undecided, and that they will likely start with observing the actions of others.
“We’re going to watch and listen to what other agencies are proposing. We have heard that some agencies are already proposing to sue to overturn the initiative,” she said. “We’ll have a conversation with council and talk about what our next steps might be, but we haven’t had a chance to get together as a body to do that yet.”
Also in jeopardy are plans for additional revenue through the creation of a transportation benefit district.
The city of Issaquah also has a transportation benefit district, which was voted on by the council, that is established as the boundaries of the city and the city can ask the community for more funds or vote as a council to create more funds. A former option for project fundraising was implementing an additional car tab fee. But that’s no longer something the city can consider.
Pauly said there had been some discussion of possibly funding items in the city’s capital improvement plan by using money from the transportation benefit district. But now they would have to rethink that and perhaps add a sales tax instead of car tab fees.
She said in council deliberations over the 2020 budget, which is undergoing revisions but has not yet been voted on, council added some money to ask voters for an increase in sales tax to fund a transportation package.
“They have not yet decided what projects would be in the package or when they would want to go out and ask the voters that,” she said. “We have not yet gone to the public and asked them to approve an increase in sales tax, but there is money in the budget to do that in 2020.”
The 2020 budget is tentatively scheduled to be voted on for adoption at the Nov. 18 city council meeting when a final public hearing will also take place.
I-976 is passing statewide, but not in a few counties, including King County. King County Executive Dow Constantine has said the county may sue to overturn the measure.
Pauly said right now everything is sort of up in the air, both as far as impacts and how jurisdictions will respond.
“We’ll have to see where it goes. It’s a complicated story, a big list of projects, a lot of money. But we need to make improvements in transportation and we need to pay for it,” Pauly said.