Politics & Government

GOP-led investigation says Sound Transit used trickery to sell $54 billion expansion plan

Sounder, a commuter train operated by Sound Transit between Lakewood and Seattle, rolls over Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, June 19, 2017.
Sounder, a commuter train operated by Sound Transit between Lakewood and Seattle, rolls over Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, June 19, 2017. phaley@thenewstribune.com

A state Senate panel on Monday released a summary of findings from its investigation into Sound Transit, saying the agency misled lawmakers and the public about the size and details of a $54 billion transit package that voters approved in 2016.

The GOP-led Senate Law and Justice Committee’s report comes after hearings over how Sound Transit advertised the price tag for Sound Transit 3 and how the agency would charge for car-tab fees that ballooned as part of the ballot measure.

“Sound Transit played fast and loose with the truth,” Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican from Spokane Valley who chairs the committee that held the investigation, said in a statement. “It kept key facts from the Legislature and the voters. It displayed disregard for laws designed to ensure full disclosure and prevent public resources from being used for campaigns. Sound Transit has given government at all levels a black eye.”

Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for Sound Transit, rejected the panel’s report and said the agency was clear and upfront about what it planned to do. Patrick said the findings are the result of a “fairly partisan affair” that was not a “fair or balanced inquiry.”

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat on the Law and Justice Committee, also disagreed with much of the findings, saying they were just GOP “partisan talking points.” Pedersen noted the findings were released without a vote of approval from the full Law and Justice Committee, and he said committee leaders did not show him the report before it was sent out.

It is unclear if a vote will happen.

“I think they had their talking points before they launched their investigation,” Pedersen said.

Sound Transit 3 got a majority of votes in its three-county taxing district. In Pierce County, however, most voted against it. The package will expand light rail in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties along with boosts to bus service and commuter-rail lines.

The main finding in the summary report says Sound Transit misled the Legislature by asking lawmakers for authority to approve a ballot measure containing up to $15 billion in new taxes over 15 years.

After it got permission to seek new taxes, the agency eventually asked voters for $28 billion in new revenue over 25 years, paid for by a combination of increased sales taxes, car-tab fees and property-tax hikes.

Many Republicans say they would never have permitted a tax package that large to go to voters. In a statement, Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, called the move a “classic bait and switch.” O’Ban is the vice chair of the Law and Justice Committee.

The committee’s summary report references a set of 2015 talking points drafted by Sound Transit officials that direct board members to ask the Legislature to approve “the full $15 billion” in taxing authority. The findings say the talking points were used often.

Sound Transit has a different view of events.

Patrick said the $15 billion figure was only preliminary and that the agency clearly communicated that size and duration of the transit package would be shaped by public input.

“It was always up to the Sound Transit Board to listen to the public about what people wanted in the region,” he said.

For proof, he cited a report from the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, which says, after investigation, it had no evidence that Sound Transit “attempted to deceive any legislator regarding any aspect” of Sound Transit 3.

The Senate findings also say the committee believes Sound Transit “concealed” how it would estimate the value of vehicles when calculating car-tab fees, according to news release from Senate Republicans.

The agency is using an outdated formula from the 1990s that overestimates the value of a vehicle in its first 10 years. That has led to higher car-tab fees for new cars.

Many lawmakers said they were surprised Sound Transit was using the formula since they repealed it more than a decade ago to implement one they said was more fair. Some also claim Sound Transit wasn’t clear enough that it would use the old vehicle-valuation schedule.

The agency is using the older formula until bonds it issued based on the old vehicle-valuation schedule are paid off in 2028.

Patrick called using the old formula a “continuation of the status quo.”

The Senate committee report claims the confusion makes using the old vehicle-valuation schedule unconstitutional by breaking requirements that bills fully state what laws they would revise or amend.

Patrick denied that Sound Transit deceived the Legislature. He said Sound Transit was clear it would use the older formula and said so in a bill lawmakers approved in 2015 to approve Sound Transit 3.

Some lawmakers agree it was known which vehicle-valuation schedule would be used. There was even a debate over amending the valuation schedule in the state Senate in February of 2015. It was voted down.

“It was in the bill. It was in the bill report. There was debate on the senate floor about it,” Pedersen said. “Anybody who didn’t understand that we were using the (older) depreciation schedule was either asleep or was lying.”

Though Republicans on the Law and Justice Committee claim Sound Transit violated the state constitution, they said overturning any portion of ST3 would be difficult since bonds have been issued for the package.

Padden said the report should instead fuel legislative efforts to “bring Sound Transit back in line, restore accountability and rebuild public trust.”

Specifically, Republicans have been pushing to make the board at Sound Transit independently elected. Currently the board is made up of officials elected to other local offices and some state agency staff.

The GOP, and some Democrats, have also tried to change how car-tab fees are calculated. No effort has passed so far.

O’Ban promised to bring up Sound Transit reform in the Legislature again.

“We can be sure this will be a front-and-center issue in next year’s Legislature,” he said. “We have a duty in the Legislature to ensure this kind of misbehavior never occurs again.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein