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Judge tosses lawsuit challenging car tab fee hike, light rail expansion

Construction proceeds on the Sound Transit 3 rail expansion (KOMO News file photo)

TACOMA, Wash. - A Pierce County judge ruled Friday that a car tab tax hike funding a multimillion-dollar expansion of the region's light rail system is constitutional, and tossed out a class action lawsuit challenging the increase.

Seven Seattle-area residents sued the agency in June, challenging the collection of higher vehicle license fees that voters approved as part of the Sound Transit 3 transportation package in 2016.

The lawsuit argues that the 2015 law that put the Sound Transit 3 transportation package on the ballot is unconstitutional because it amends existing statute without including the full text. The lawsuit also alleges that ST3 relied on an outdated formula from the '90s to calculate car tab fees. It sought to have $400 million in higher car tab fees refunded to motorists.

But Pierce County Judge Kathryn Nelson ruled Friday that the ballot measure and the funding method is constitutional, and that construction work on the light rail expansion can continue.

The judge did not take long to issue her decision.

“There are many aspects of this case that I think are way above my pay grade and I have a feeling that there will be opportunities for those open with that pay grade to double-check my work,” said Judge Kathryn Nelson.

Friday afternoon, supporters of the lawsuit say the judge dismissed the class action lawsuit without much consideration.

Senator Steve O'Ban wrote an amicus brief for the lawsuit.

“I was a bit surprised she ruled from the bench today," said O'Ban.

“She just basically passed the buck and said somebody else above my pay grade is going to make the decision,” said Tim Eyman, an anti-tax advocate.

Meanwhile, sound transit says that means its work can continue without delays.

“This is great news for commuters of the region,” said Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for Sound Transit. “These are investments that have been long-delayed and now that we're finally moving forward with.”

The car tab hike is a primary funding mechanism for the third phase of the Sound Transit light rail system that eventually would connect Everett, Tacoma, Seattle, Bellevue. West Seattle and other communities in a 116-mile rail grid.

The ST3 plan would also add more cars to light rail trains and improve access to Sound Transit stations.

Thursday afternoon, several drivers in Pierce County expressed mixed reactions to the judge's decision. Unlike King and Snohomish counties, voters in Pierce County rejected ST3.

"Nobody wants to pay these fees you know," said Levi Shook of Tacoma. "“Compared to last year, it was three times the amount."

"Yeah, I'm upset for it. That's why I didn't vote for it. Because I knew it would be this much," said Scott Murphey.

"For a lot of families, that's a lot of money a year," said Kim Murphey.

Attorneys behind the class action lawsuit haven't said if they will appeal. Other supporters are confidant it'll eventually end up in the State Supreme Court.

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