Opinion

Legislators can’t unring the bell of Sound Transit 3

From the Editorial Board

Jeff Jackson of Lacey affixes new tabs to the plates of his 1985 Oldsmobile in 1999. Car tabs were a big story that year, as Washington voters adopted Initiative 695 to hold the cost to $30. (I-695 was later overturned by the state Supreme Court.) Expensive car tabs are a big story again this year after voters approved increased fees last November as part of Sound Transit 3.
Jeff Jackson of Lacey affixes new tabs to the plates of his 1985 Oldsmobile in 1999. Car tabs were a big story that year, as Washington voters adopted Initiative 695 to hold the cost to $30. (I-695 was later overturned by the state Supreme Court.) Expensive car tabs are a big story again this year after voters approved increased fees last November as part of Sound Transit 3. AP file photo

A backlash was inevitable after last fall’s voter approval of a mammoth $54 billion Sound Transit package. Nobody should be surprised that Republicans in Olympia would use their bully pulpit to administer some of the harshest lashes.

GOP caucus members have offered a handful of bills to rein in Sound Transit’s authority, hoping to undermine the newest controversial mix of taxes. They’re riding a wave of public discontent in the wake of the Sound Transit 3 vote, which will expand light rail and other mass-transit options in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties over the next 25 years.

The political bow wave has surged as vehicle owners fume about steep increases in car-tab renewals this spring. Other ST3 tax hikes will be absorbed more gradually: a sales tax bump of 50 cents for every $100 purchase, and an additional $25 property tax per $100,000 in assessed value.

Some say the GOP is taking a principled stance against a bloated, unaccountable regional transit agency. Local legislators might score points standing up for Pierce County voters, a majority of whom turned down ST3.

Others attribute the transit opposition to sour grapes.

We wouldn’t go that far. But we do see the Republican proposals as a misguided attempt to unring a bell that more than 700,000 Puget Sound voters rang last fall — a clarion call for relief in one of America’s most traffic-jammed regions, where 800,000 more residents will settle by the year 2040.

The worst part, in the unlikely event these bills were to become law: Sound Transit would have an excuse to delay the extension of the light rail “spine” to Tacoma. The first train to Tacoma Dome station is now set for 2030, a promise that must be kept.

Let’s take the GOP proposals one at a time:

▪ The opt-out approach: Two bills would allow cities or counties to exempt themselves from all of Sound Transit’s new taxes (Senate Bill 5817) or just the property tax (SB 5854).

Not only would this unravel ST3’s bonding capacity by creating a patchwork of opt-out communities, but it violates the spirit of regional cooperation and fair play. It’s based on the argument: “My county didn’t support ST3, so why should I?” By this logic, should communities be able to opt out of Donald Trump as their president because Pierce County went for Hillary Clinton?

Gripe all you want about being bigfooted by rich Seattleites, but the Pierce County Council agreed in 1993 to join the regional transit authority. Reneging on pledges made in Sound Transit 1-3 would be an act of bad faith. Seceding from the union before an ST4 package is placed on the ballot someday? That’s a separate conversation.

▪ Reorganization of the Sound Transit board: Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, wants to make board members subject to direct public election (SB 5001), rather than the current system in which City Council members, mayors and county executives comprise the 18-member board.

We respect O’Ban’s brainpower and record of service, but we bristle at the thought of Sound Transit being turned into a political football, hypercharged by expensive election campaigns. Board members are already accountable to voters in cities and counties where they’re elected.

Moreover, they’re versed in local land-use law, permit regulations, housing patterns and economic development policy — the granular expertise needed to build a 116-mile light-rail line with at least 80 stations in 16 cities.

▪ Requiring Sound Transit to use a different schedule for assessing car values: For car-tab purposes, the agency continues to follow an outdated schedule that overestimates how much a vehicle is worth in its first 10 years off the factory floor.

A Republican change (SB 5851) would force the agency to adopt the formula adopted by the Legislature in 2006; car-tab fees would shrink because they’d be tied to values assigned by Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association, whichever is lower.

Of all the Sound Transit backlash bills, this one deserves a closer look and fair consideration by Democrats. Voters knew what they were doing (or should have known) when they approved a triple dose of ST3 tax hikes in November. But most had no clue they were also agreeing to preserve an inflated car-valuation scheme.

As a whole, however, the GOP’s after-the-fact resistance is futile, like the Confederate warship CSS Shenandoah as it kept chasing Union ships for weeks after the Civil War ended.

Though ST3 is not perfect and far from cheap, voters have kept the region on track for a cohesive, three-county mass-transit network with big payoffs down the road for the South Sound. It shouldn’t be derailed based on an outburst of angry messages sent to Republican lawmakers.

We trust the ballot box over the email inbox any day.

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