Voters deserve both.
Sound Transit 3, among other things, promised light rail to Tacoma and Everett. Residents of the Puget Sound region should see it delivered, without delay.
Sound Transit 3 also relied on an outdated and suspect vehicle valuation formula that regularly overestimates a vehicle’s worth during the first 10 years of its life. This misstep, delaying the use of the vehicle valuation formula the Legislature approved in 2006 that’s far more fair, has led to inflated car tab costs for owners of newer cars. In the process, it’s created resentment, a feeling of distrust, and a convenient political target for opponents of Sound Transit and the important mass-transit projects it oversees.
Now that Democrats have control of both chambers of the state Legislature, they’re in position to right this wrong without blowing a hole in ST3’s bottom line.
They should do so, pronto. While I agree with the most ardent pro-transit voices when they suggest the projects in ST3 are too important to risk, I also believe such a compromise is within realistic reach.
You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.
Take State Sen. Marko Liias, for instance.
The Lynnwood Democrat doubled down recently on the argument that providing relief to vehicle owners and ensuring that light rail reaches Tacoma and Everett, without delay, is not only possible, it’s the right thing to do.
It’s a telling acknowledgment, considering Liias, as the original sponsor of the language the Legislature approved to authorize ST3, was one of the state lawmakers responsible for ST3’s reliance on the outdated valuation.
“I call it the Pottery Barn rule. I broke it, and I have to fix it,” Liias said. “I advocated for a valuation table that, in the end, people don’t think is fair.”
Equally telling is that providing relief to vehicle owners effected by ST3’s questionable valuation formula has become a priority for many Democratic lawmakers in Olympia. There’s a political reality involved in that calculation — for Sound Transit, and its supporters on the left, the current method is a bad look for all involved.
There’s also the fact that using inflated vehicle values to collect taxes, even for worthy projects, is just plain wrong.
That’s why a plan to offer a rebate or credit to vehicle owners, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, is currently on the table — just like it was last session when it also served as a common sense counter to overzealous Republican efforts to essentially cripple ST3 for political gains. However, Pellicciotti’s House bill was recently tabled as lawmakers like Liias seek to ensure that passing the legislation doesn’t kneecap ST3.
The thoughtful diligence is appropriate. Without question, there are valid reasons for concern.
For starters, there’s some $5 billion in federal funding for Sound Transit projects that President Trump and his transit-adverse cohorts are threatening to cut. That’s nothing to joke about, and seeing the region’s hard-fought transit victories suddenly at the mercy of a rash and unpredictable administration should leave us all unsettled.
Then there are the more specific figures involved with offering a car-tab reimbursement. Lawmakers believe offering a rebate or credit would take $780 million away from the $54 billion, 25-year transit package. (Sound Transit officials, meanwhile, contend it would ultimately cost the agency $2.2 billion, once the complicated financing implications are considered.)
It’s a significant chunk, for certain, but in the grand scheme of things it’s far from insurmountable. While asking the Legislature to come up with an extra $780 million in a short budget year is likely a pipe dream, there are clearly concrete steps that can be taken to mitigate the impacts.
Liias points to a number of potential remedies, the most obvious and sensible being limiting the right-of-way fees that the state Department of Transportation charges Sound Transit to build its projects along Interstate 5.
It’s an easy fix. Such a move could save Sound Transit “around $400 million … over the lifetime of the (ST3) program,” Liias says.
“It is a big chunk of what we would need” to help fill the hole in ST3’s budget left by offering rebates to vehicle owners, he believes.
Here’s what’s clear: Offering rebates or credits to those whose vehicles have been overvalued is the only move that makes sense. The returns will likely be minimal for most drivers, but until Sound Transit’s trust issues are in the rear-view mirror, the issue will linger, and more importantly be available as ammunition for anyone seeking to shoot political holes in the agency and its important transit projects.
Now, will a modest rebate check win over everyone, including Sound Transit’s harshest critics? Of course not. But it’s the principle that matters, and in this case, the principal truth is that ST3’s credibility is compromised until this avoidable and unfortunate mess is made right.
“We live in a democracy, and the voters did approve ST3, and those same voters are now saying that the valuation we’re using is unfair. I think it’s OK to look at a decision that was made and tweak it in a way that makes it better and fairer to people,” Liias says.
“The broad public, I think, has said clearly they want both. They’ve said it, and they deserve it.”
Now it falls on Liias and his colleagues in the Legislature to deliver.