This afternoon the Senate Law and Justice Committee will hold the first of two hearings for an “investigation” of Sound Transit.
Longtime opponents of light rail, State Senators Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, and Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, requested the hearings, claiming the transit agency “may have engaged in a systematic effort to confuse and misrepresent the impact and cost of the Sound Transit 3 authorization to legislators and the public.”
After many residents reacted to an increase in car tab fees, O’Ban and Rossi accused Sound Transit of using “unconstitutional MVET” valuations. The Senators also claim Sound Transit misrepresented the total length of the ST3 package, which they say grew to $28 billion in total taxes from the proposed $15 billion.
According to the memo, “the ST3 authorizing legislation adopted in 2015 clearly and explicitly directed that the increased Sound Transit MVET use the older vehicle depreciation schedule from the 1990s.”
Sound Transit has used this same depreciation schedule for car tab fees since 1999, according to Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick. A revised MVET valuation was created in 2006 by the legislature, but the new schedule has never been applied to any vehicles in Washington. Prior to the 2016 election where voters approved the ST3 package, Sound Transit provided a cost-calculator on their website for voters to estimate the additional taxes ST3 would bring.
O’Ban previously voted to approve the 2015 bill which authorized the ST3 ballot measure, including the current MVET valuations. Rossi was not in the state legislature at the time of the 2015 vote.
Last legislative session, O’Ban sponsored Senate Bill 5893 to cut car tab fees. The bill passed the Senate but languished in the House. In a letter published in The Seattle Times, O’Ban asserts the transit agency could afford to cut car tab fees, estimating that SB 5893 would leave Sound Transit with “93 percent of the funds approved by ST3.”
However, Patrick said the passage of SB 5893 would result in a much larger loss of revenue which would then also reduce bonding capacity for ST3.
Patrick said the fiscal impact of the bill would have “left a $12 billion hole” in ST3’s financial plan, which could delay projects, pushing out completion dates.
Responding to claims Sound Transit misled voters on the length of ST3, Sound Transit says the $15 billion represented just the amount of new tax revenue that could be generated over 15 years and didn’t include federal funding, fares, bonding and other miscellaneous revenue for projects.
Patrick said that after hearing from residents wanting a more ambitious transit package while shaping the ST3 project list, the Sound Transit Board voted to extend expansion plans to 25 years, which then increased the amount of new tax revenue to $28 billion.
In a guest post, Seattle Subway called the investigation an act of bad faith, “because they are trying to override the will of voters who expect Sound Transit to deliver the light rail promised in ST3.”
The pro-transit group says the Republican senators, desperate to maintain control of the State Senate, want to make car tab fees an issue in an upcoming special election in the 45th district. Republican candidate Jinyoung Lee Englund has made reducing car tab fees a main campaign promise. Democratic candidate Manka Dhingra easily won the primary with 51 percent of the vote to Englund’s 41 percent.
Last Thursday, Rossi declared his intention to run for Rep. Dave Reichert’s (R-Auburn) congressional seat when he retires in 2018.
The first “investigation” work session is scheduled for this afternoon at Kent City Council Chambers (220 Fourth Ave. S) starting at 1 pm. The second work session will be held October 5 at the city of Everett’s Community Resource Center School Board Room (3900 Broadway Avenue) at 1pm.
According to Patrick, he, Ann McNeil (ST’s Director of Government and Community Relations), and General Counsel Desmond Brown have been asked to appear before the committee Tuesday.