Politics & Government

Republicans stage short-lived showdown over Sound Transit 3. ‘We’re protecting our constituents’

A Sounder train arrives at the Lakewood Sounder Station in this photo from August 2012. Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion transit package voters approved in 2016, promises to extend light rail and improve commuter rail service over the next 25 years, but some politicians remain concerned about the cost to taxpayers.
A Sounder train arrives at the Lakewood Sounder Station in this photo from August 2012. Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion transit package voters approved in 2016, promises to extend light rail and improve commuter rail service over the next 25 years, but some politicians remain concerned about the cost to taxpayers. The News Tribune

Republicans in the state House tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to force a vote on several measures aiming to rein in Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion transit package voters approved in November.

The attempt was quickly shut down by Democratic leaders, who said some of the GOP proposals would gut the regional transit agency and potentially prevent Sound Transit from completing projects already approved by voters.

“We’re trying to be more thoughtful about this,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

GOP lawmakers, who are in the minority in the House, say they’re frustrated that Democratic leaders haven’t held committee hearings on proposals to reduce the cost of car tab fees associated with Sound Transit 3, as well as to let jurisdictions opt out of the Sound Transit taxing district.

Republicans tried a procedural move Wednesday to bring those proposals and others directly to the House floor for a vote. But Democrats who control the chamber universally voted no on the procedural motion, causing it to fail 47-50.

The Sound Transit 3 package raises about $28 billion in revenue through increased car tab fees, as well as hikes in property taxes and sales taxes, to expand light rail and improve commuter-rail and bus service in the Puget Sound area. It passed among a majority of voters in Sound Transit’s three-county taxing district, though Pierce County voters rejected it.

People are going to have to deal with the consequences of this, the cost, for the next 30 years, so it’s certainly worth a second look.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, House minority floor leader

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said Wednesday morning that she doesn’t think letting cities and counties exempt themselves from the three-county district makes sense.

She said she is working on her own plan to change the formula Sound Transit uses to calculate car tab fees, which she said would be slightly different from what Republicans have proposed.

Right now, the way Sound Transit calculates vehicle values significantly overestimates the value of vehicles in their first 10 years of life, leading to high car tab fees for some vehicles.

Several Republican lawmakers have proposed instead calculating car tab fees using a car’s resale value, as determined by Kelley Blue Book or the National Auto Dealers’ Association, whichever is lower.

Some Democrats have expressed their support for proposals to lower the cost of car-tab fees under Sound Transit 3. But those Democratic lawmakers didn’t break with their party Wednesday to support Republicans’ attempt to bypass legislative committees and bring the measures directly to the House floor for a vote.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, the House minority floor leader, said he thinks if the public vote on Sound Transit 3 were held today, it would most likely fail, because people are starting to understand just how much it will cost them. Car-tab renewal notices that included the new Sound Transit fees started going out recently.

“I think it was a very complex question to be voted on, and people did not believe the cost would be as high as it is,” said Wilcox, R-Yelm.

“We’re protecting our constituents,” he said. “People are going to have to deal with the consequences of this, the cost, for the next 30 years, so it’s certainly worth a second look.”

Sound Transit officials recently said changing how car tab fees are calculated would result in the agency losing $6 billion in revenue.

We’re trying to be more thoughtful about this.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington

Wilcox said letting some jurisdictions withdraw from the Sound Transit district could help reduce project costs, if that’s a concern. Alternatively, Sound Transit could seek another public vote on a new, smaller transit package, he suggested.

Clibborn also questioned Sound Transit’s $6 billion figure. She said she thinks by switching to a newer car tab formula the Legislature approved in 2006, Sound Transit would lose only about $750 million in revenue from car tab renewals — though she said she’s not sure how much additional financing and interest costs the agency could face on top of that.

Still, she guessed the total cost to the agency wouldn’t exceed about $2 billion, spread out over multiple decades.

Although the newer vehicle valuation schedule was approved by the Legislature more than a decade ago, it hasn’t been applied to the bonds that Sound Transit is taking out for Sound Transit 3 projects. Sound Transit is instead using an older formula to calculate car tab fees, and isn’t set to switch to the newer one until January 2029, after older bonds from 1999 are retired.

Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesman, said it is difficult to suddenly switch to the 2006 vehicle valuation formula, because it would be inconsistent with commitments the agency has made to its bond holders. The agency has already taken out $400 million in bonds for Sound Transit 3 projects, he said.

When taking out those bonds in fall 2016, the agency pledged to collect car tab fees based on the older valuation schedule until the 1999 bonds are retired, he said.

Retiring those older bonds early is part of what would rack up the estimated $6 billion in cost, Patrick said. One reason for that is a 2002 citizen initiative that takes away the agency’s ability to collect some existing car tab fees after the retirement of the 1999 bonds, he said.

Clibborn said she is still working on a way to switch to the updated car tab formula as soon as possible.

But she said the other measures Republicans have proposed to reform Sound Transit 3 — including letting cities and counties back out of the taxing district — are nonstarters.

“The other things take it apart,” she said. “We’re not going to do that.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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