Supreme Court upholds billions of dollars in transit funding

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2019, file photo, southbound passengers wait as they look across at a northbound Sound Transit light rail train at an underground station in downtown Seattle. The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, upheld vehicle registration tax increases in the Puget Sound area, a decision that preserves billions of dollars in voter-approved money earmarked for light trail and other projects.

SEATTLE (AP) — The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday upheld vehicle registration tax increases in the Puget Sound area, a decision that preserves billions of dollars in voter-approved money earmarked for light trail and other projects.

Seven people had sued to overturn a rate increase by the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, known as Sound Transit.

Voters in 2016 approved the rate hike to fund the Sound Transit 3 expansion project. The voter-approved expansion project aims to build 62 miles(100 km) of light rail, reaching Everett in the North, Tacoma and new neighborhoods in Seattle and cities fast-growing cities to the east, including Kirkland and Redmond.

The lawsuit sought a refund of millions of dollars in car registration fees collected through the increase to help pay for the $54 billion expansion.

In a 7 to 2 decision, the high court justices found that the motor vehicle excise tax used to pay for the Sound Transit projects was constitutional.

Many people who live within in Sound Transit taxing district, which stretches from Everett to south of Tacoma, have long complained their car registration fees were excessive and didn't accurately reflect the value of their vehicles. Lawyers for the people who sued argued the law authorizing the car fees was vague and the MVET increase was illegal because it wrongly changed the way Sound Transit determined how much vehicles were worth for taxing purposes.

Writing for the majority, Justice Susan Owens said the law authorizing the tax hikes was valid and that it was clear in the text of the statute how cars would be valued for taxing.

Two justices, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Debra Stephens, dissented.

Gordon McCloud wrote that the underlying statute governing the vehicle tax increase was illegally vague. “The MVET statute therefore violated the constitutional mandate designed to provide clarity to the legislative process,” she wrote.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling the underlying funding for Sound Transit is still in question. On Wednesday a King County Superior Court judge rejected most of a legal challenge to Tim Eyman's Initiative 976, a measure voters approved last year that would steeply discount the price of car registrations while gutting transportation budgets across the state.

Judge Marshall Ferguson said King County and a coalition of Washington cities had failed to carry the heavy burden of demonstrating that the $30 car tab measure was unconstitutional on most of their claims. Those claims included that the description of the initiative on the ballot was misleading and that the measure violated the Washington Constitution's rule that initiatives be limited to one subject. I-976 will remain blocked from taking effect while the sides gather information and make arguments to the court about those issues, Ferguson said. The case is expected to wind up before the state Supreme Court.

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