Politics & Government

Senate votes to revamp Sound Transit board amid angst over taxes. It’s ‘only a start,’ leader says

A Link light rail train leaves the Commerce Street Station in Tacoma, Washington, on Tuesday April 12, 2016. In November, a majority of voters across three counties approved about $54 billion over the next 25 years to expand light rail, commuter train and express-bus services. But some state lawmakers — especially in Pierce County, where the Sound Transit 3 package failed — say they are frustrated with Sound Transit, and are looking to reform how the agency does business.
A Link light rail train leaves the Commerce Street Station in Tacoma, Washington, on Tuesday April 12, 2016. In November, a majority of voters across three counties approved about $54 billion over the next 25 years to expand light rail, commuter train and express-bus services. But some state lawmakers — especially in Pierce County, where the Sound Transit 3 package failed — say they are frustrated with Sound Transit, and are looking to reform how the agency does business. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

State senators want to overhaul how Sound Transit does business, starting with the agency’s governing board.

The state Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would replace the 18 local officials who are appointed to Sound Transit’s board with 11 board members who are directly elected by voters.

Senate Bill 5001 cleared the Senate on Wednesday on a 29-20 vote, and now heads to the state House for consideration.

The idea is born partly from frustration over Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion transit package that the agency’s board sent to voters in November, said state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, the sponsor of the measure.

While the Sound Transit 3 package — and its $28 billion in tax increases — was approved by a majority of voters in Sound Transit’s taxing district, it failed in Pierce County, where O’Ban represents West Tacoma and several nearby communities, including University Place, Fircrest, Steilacoom, DuPont and most of Lakewood.

They need accountability, and this is the way we bring accountability to Sound Transit.

State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma

O’Ban said the measure failed in his area partly because the Sound Transit board didn’t put forth a transit package that would meet Pierce County residents’ needs. He said that would be less likely to happen if Sound Transit were governed by people who were elected by geographic districts, instead of appointed by county executives.

ST3 passed among voters in nearby King and Snohomish counties, which make up the majority of Sound Transit’s three-county taxing district.

“This board is not elected directly by taxpayers, by voters, and we will continue to see evidence of its disconnectedness over the next 10 to 20 years,” O’Ban said.

“They need accountability, and this is the way we bring accountability to Sound Transit.”

During Wednesday’s floor debate, Republican senators railed against Sound Transit for using an outdated — and inflated — way of calculating people’s new car-tab fees. In recent weeks, lawmakers say they’ve been inundated with calls from Puget Sound area drivers who have been surprised by how much it will cost them to renew their car tabs under ST3.

“Right now, I think the attorney general of the state ought to be investigating Sound Transit for consumer fraud,” said state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and the chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for Sound Transit, said the agency was upfront about how it calculates car-tab fees throughout the Sound Transit 3 campaign.

At the time, the agency estimated that the typical adult in Sound Transit’s taxing district could expect to pay a total of about $170 more per year if ST3 passed, including the measure’s proposed increases in car-tab fees, property taxes and sales taxes.

The $170-per-year estimate was based on the car-tab formula that is now being used, which state law leaves in place through 2028, Patrick said.

While expensive vehicles get hit with higher fees, Patrick said more than half of registered vehicles in Sound Transit’s taxing district still will pay less than $100 per year to the agency in car-tab fees, even with the recent increase.

There are Republicans who don’t like light rail, they don’t like Sound Transit, and they just won’t give up.

State Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood

Sound Transit is opposing O’Ban’s bill to overhaul the agency’s board. Patrick said it is important to include local government and transit officials to ensure the agency is coordinating its efforts.

“It’s critical those (Sound Transit) investments occur in tandem with investments in local transit service,” Patrick said.

The proposal would establish four-year terms for elected Sound Transit board members and allot each a $10,000 annual stipend and travel expenses. Right now, the salaried elected officials who are appointed to the board do not receive regular stipends, but are reimbursed for travel expenses.

During Wednesday’s floor debate, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, hinted that lawmakers may consider additional ways of reforming Sound Transit in the coming weeks. Schoesler said by passing O’Ban’s bill, the Senate was “off to a good start — but only a start.”

Republican lawmakers, who control the Senate with the aid of one conservative Democrat who caucuses with them, have proposed other bills to change how Sound Transit operates, including letting jurisdictions release their voters from paying Sound Transit 3 taxes and reforming how Sound Transit assesses vehicle values to determine car-tab fees.

Sen. Joe Fain, the Senate majority floor leader, said Tuesday that those measures are by no means dead in the Legislature, even though some of them missed key deadlines to advance out of committee.

In an interview Tuesday, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, said the Republican measures were largely without merit, and amount to “sour grapes over what the voters did in the fall.”

“The voters clearly invested more in light rail,” said Liias, one of Senate Democrats’ leaders on transportation issues.

“There are Republicans who don’t like light rail, they don’t like Sound Transit, and they just won’t give up,” he said.

While not all of the Republican proposals will receive a favorable reception in the Democratic-controlled state House, the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, Judy Clibborn, said Tuesday that she is interested in taking another look at how Sound Transit calculates car-tab fees, as well as whether to change the makeup of the Sound Transit board.

Clibborn said she probably will grant O’Ban’s bill a hearing in her committee. She said she thinks Sound Transit might have rushed some of the decision-making associated with the ST3 package, and could stand to be “more politically sensitive.”

“I want to talk to Sound Transit about how they become attuned to the politics of what they’re doing,” said Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

“... Would they have done the same thing if they had been looking at this bigger picture?”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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