Happening Now

Amtrak Cascades Service Could End On A Single Popular Vote

January 15, 2019

How a corruption fraud case could disembowel transit service in Washington State

By Abe Zumwalt

Washington State primarily funds its transit operations from vehicle licensing fees. For a diverse and robust transit network--one which boasts the largest ferry system in the continental United States, extensive rural regional bus service, explosively popular light rail service, and a healthy intercity passenger rail program--this unvarying source of funding has proven in the past to be a dangerous Achilles heel. Voters face a choice on the November 2019 ballot to cap this fee at $30, which would bring the state to a standstill in more ways than one.

The initiative, I-976, is also part of a broader campaign to raise a legal defense fund for its creator, Tim Eyman. Eyman is famous in Washington State politics as an initiative factory--a hired gun able to gather signatures and get issues on the ballot within the state, usually with a focus on cutting taxes, especially cuts that target transit funding. The state Attorney General has brought political corruption charges against him, accusing Eyman of secretly moving funds between two initiative campaigns in 2012 and receiving $308,000 in kickbacks from the firm that collected signatures for both measures.

This marks the sixth attempt to kill this source of transit funding in Washington State. The first attempt, I-695, passed in 1999 – but was later struck down as unconstitutional in the state supreme court. Despite this defeat, the legislature instated the initiative's $30 mandate, a move which continues to be felt across the state’s famous ferry system.

The current attempt, which will be on the ballot in Washington State in November, would do much the same to the Seattle metropolitan region’s growing light rail and commuter rail systems, and kick the legs out of Amtrak Cascades service as well. Luckily, our friends over at All Aboard Washington have already launched a campaign aimed to activate the growing number of stakeholders who rely on these systems.

However, there is a larger story to tell outside the story of one local initiative.

First, is the growing importance of the initiative process for local transportation systems. We’re all indebted to local organizations like All Aboard Washington in their work against them.

Second, is the root cause of tenuous situations like this one. Transit funding is so often vulnerable to simple attacks like this one. Car tabs in Washington State represent a basket overladen with too many eggs, and the Eyeman initiatives aren’t the only guns aimed at it. While crucial to its communities and booming economy, Washington isn’t the only State that funds transit as if it were an afterthought.

The answer is to diversify sources of transportation funding, and for the federal government to resume its role in providing capital funds to kickstart infrastructure projects. Until that happens, transportation systems will continue to be vulnerable to these kinds of political attacks.