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

Politics & Government

Wish Pierce County would ditch ST3 and Sound Transit for good? It's complicated.

June 20, 2017 07:00 AM

Like most people in Pierce County, Wayne Pulliam voted against Sound Transit 3.

The Midland resident thinks that means he shouldn’t have to pay for the $54-billion transit package.

“Everybody is complaining about property taxes, your car tabs, the sales tax — all that stuff,” said Pulliam, who is 70. “There’s got to be some kind of loophole. Just because Snohomish and King voted for it, that means they should just do the light rail in those counties, and not be doing it here — because we voted no.”

It’s not that simple, officials said.

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There’s no provision in state law that allows Pierce County to leave Sound Transit, said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a Republican who sits on the Sound Transit board.

Nor does the ordinance the Pierce County Council approved decades ago to create Sound Transit mention any way of exiting the three-county agreement. Officials in Pierce, Snohomish and King counties each voted separately to join the regional transit authority in 1993.

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, a Democrat from Gig Harbor, said he researched whether Pierce County could get out of Sound Transit 3 after the November election. Young said he kept getting angry calls and emails from voters asking about it.

“We had some people calling and writing saying, ‘Just get out of it entirely,’” Young said. “Basically, there’s just no legal mechanism for us to do so. Even if there was a discussion at the council, there’s just no way to approach it.”

While Pierce County voters rejected the so-called ST3 ballot measure in November, it passed with support from voters in King and Snohomish counties, which make up the majority of Sound Transit’s three-county taxing district.

The transit package will extend light rail to Everett and Tacoma, while improving bus service and commuter rail throughout the Puget Sound. The plan will raise about $28 billion in revenue from increased property taxes, sales taxes and car-tab fees over the next 25 years.

Pierce County residents are expected to pay about $5.2 billion of that.

Just because Snohomish and King voted for it, that means they should just do the light rail in those counties, and not be doing it here — because we voted no.

Wayne Pulliam, Midland resident who voted ‘no’ on Sound Transit 3

After an outcry from Pierce County voters, some Republicans in the Legislature this year proposed creating a way for a city or county to remove itself from Sound Transit’s taxing district. Yet even that proposal could run into legal issues.

Since the November election, Sound Transit has already sold about $400 million in bonds. Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for the agency, said those bonds were taken out partly against the increased sales taxes and car-tab fees charged under Sound Transit 3.

Because of those bond obligations, Sound Transit could argue that any law altering those revenue streams — say, by removing Pierce County from Sound Transit’s taxing district — is unconstitutional.

That’s because Washington’s constitution prohibits lawmakers from passing laws “impairing the obligations of contracts.”

We had some people calling and writing saying, ‘Just get out of it entirely.’ Basically, there’s just no legal mechanism for us to do so.

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, a Democrat from Gig Harbor

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, said “it would be very challenging” for any city or county to pull out of Sound Transit due to that language in the state constitution. Even if local voters approve a citizen initiative to leave Sound Transit, the ballot measure could still be struck down in court, O’Ban said.

That’s one reason he has focused primarily on decreasing the cost of car tabs under Sound Transit 3, rather than allowing counties to withdraw from Sound Transit entirely.

(O’Ban’s earlier idea to let voters opt out of paying just the property tax increases under Sound Transit 3 didn’t move forward in the Legislature this year.)

Patrick, the Sound Transit spokesman, said there are other practical issues that would arise if individual cities or counties were to remove themselves from Sound Transit. For one, how would the agency ensure citizens of those counties and cities weren’t using Sound Transit buses and trains anyway?

I think the bigger question is, would Pierce County residents really not want to be connected to the regional transit system?

Geoff Patrick, Sound Transit spokesman

“Would we check people’s driver’s licenses for their place of residence before they get on the bus?” Patrick said.

And what about transit projects that have already been built or that are now underway?

Patrick said Pierce County is benefiting from billions in transit improvements the Sound Transit region approved through ballot measures in 1996 and 2008.

“You would get into the question of whether you’d be disenfranchising somebody if you deprive them of the benefit of using services they’ve paid taxes for,” Patrick said.

More importantly, he said, Pierce County residents need new light rail and transit improvements just as badly as people in Snohomish and King counties do.

Last year, Pierce County led the nation in the number of people who moved there from elsewhere. No other county had a higher net increase in the number of people moving there from other U.S. counties, according to U.S. Census data.

Patrick said hundreds of thousands more people are expected to come to the Puget Sound region in the next 25 years, making mass transit essential to keep people moving.

“I think the bigger question is: Would Pierce County residents really not want to be connected to the regional transit system?” he said.

“The reason these projects are proposed is because they are needed. And it is a very acute need.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1