A Link light rail train operated by Sound Transit runs along Pacific Avenue in Tacoma in June 2013. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com
A Link light rail train operated by Sound Transit runs along Pacific Avenue in Tacoma in June 2013. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com

Politics & Government

Did Sound Transit trick voters and lawmakers about Sound Transit 3? Senate panel wants to find out

May 16, 2017 07:00 AM

Lawmakers clamoring for an investigatory hearing into whether Sound Transit deceived people about last fall’s $54 billion transit package are getting their wish.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who is the chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said Monday he will devote a future meeting to exploring whether Sound Transit purposefully misled voters and the Legislature about Sound Transit 3, the transit package that passed in November.

Padden is granting the hearing at the request of two other Republican senators, Steve O’Ban of Tacoma and Dino Rossi of Sammamish.

In a letter last week, O’Ban and Rossi said they were “concerned that Sound Transit may have engaged in a systematic effort to confuse and misrepresent the impact and cost of the ST3 authorization to legislators and the public.”

On Monday, Padden wrote the allegations brought forward by Rossi and O’Ban were “serious and merit further consideration.”

“Any time a state agency is alleged to have acted or failed to act in a way that harms the public, the legislature should step in to carefully consider the matter,” Padden wrote in his response.

Any time a state agency is alleged to have acted or failed to act in a way that harms the public, the legislature should step in to carefully consider the matter.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who plans to hold investigatory work session on allegations of deception by Sound Transit

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, dismissed Rossi and O’Ban’s claims as “grandstanding.” She said their request for a hearing was part of an effort to undermine Sound Transit’s plans to extend light rail throughout the Puget Sound region, which she said she wouldn’t allow to happen.

“This feels like a diversion on their part,” said Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “We’re not going to overturn a vote of the people.”

In their letter requesting the investigatory hearing last week, Rossi and O’Ban cited a recent News Tribune article as the basis of some of their claims that Sound Transit deceived the public about Sound Transit 3.

In that article, several key lawmakers — including Clibborn — said they thought they were authorizing Sound Transit to put a much smaller, $15 billion tax package to voters when they approved the idea as part of a 16-year transportation plan in 2015.

Instead, Sound Transit asked voters last fall to approve about $28 billion in increased car-tab fees, sales taxes and property taxes. Sound Transit officials said the increase in the dollar figure was due to the agency extending the timeline of the package from 16 years to 25 years, which state law allowed.

Combined with bond proceeds, federal grants, existing tax revenues and rider fares, the new Sound Transit taxes will bankroll about $54 billion in transit improvements throughout the Puget Sound, including extending light rail from Everett to Tacoma, according to the agency.

This feels like a diversion on their part. We’re not going to overturn a vote of the people.

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee

O’Ban and Rossi’s other complaints mainly surround how much car-tab fees have gone up under Sound Transit 3 — and whether Sound Transit tried to downplay those effects before the election.

Lawmakers and voters have complained about the dramatic increases in the cost of renewing license plate tabs. While the ballot measure roughly tripled Sound Transit’s car-tab fee collections across its three-county taxing district, the agency is also using an outdated formula that overestimates a vehicle’s value its first 10 years of life, leading to even higher car-tab fees for newer cars.

News that Sound Transit was using the outdated formula came as a surprise to many lawmakers, who repealed the old vehicle valuation schedule more than a decade ago after deciding it was unfair. Yet language specifying that Sound Transit would use the older schedule from the 1990s was included in the newer bill lawmakers approved in 2015 to authorize Sound Transit 3.

In their letter requesting an investigatory hearing, O’Ban and Rossi repeated their earlier claims that the 2015 bill was written in a way that made it unclear the old formula would be used.

Several bills have been introduced in the Legislature this year to try to bring the new Sound Transit fees in line with the newer vehicle valuation schedule, or to calculate a car’s value based on Kelley Blue Book values. O’Ban has also proposed cutting the car-tab fees Sound Transit charges by more than half.

In an email last week, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick denied O’Ban and Rossi’s claims.

“Sound Transit’s interactions with the legislature and all of the extensive public materials related to the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure included clear and accurate information,” Patrick wrote. He noted the agency sent mailers to voters explaining the tax package, along with providing an online tax calculator that voters could use to estimate how the ballot measure would affect them.

Padden didn’t identify a date when his committee would hold the investigatory hearing to discuss O’Ban and Rossi’s concerns. The chairman said he would hold the hearing after Rossi and O’Ban receive additional public documents they have requested from Sound Transit.

The Legislature is in overtime after lawmakers were unable to agree on a new state budget during their 105-day session that ran from January to April. Their current 30-day special session ends Tuesday, and they are expected to require at least one more special session to finish their work.


Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1