In the fight to reduce the new ST3 car tab tax for Puget Sound drivers, no matter who wins, Sound Transit still wins.
It’s a conclusion one might reach following the approval by the Senate of SSB 5955 on Feb. 28; the bill provides a tax credit for drivers, but it also allows the regional transit agency to dip into a state account created in 2015 for foster kids to offset any of the estimated $780 million in reduced revenue from the new motor vehicle excise tax (MVET).
Prior to the 30-14 vote, several Senators unsuccessfully attempted to tack on amendments intended to create greater accountability for the agency. That included a requirement that the agency go back to voters if ST3’s total costs were higher than $54 billion. Another proposal found in other bills introduced this session would have turned Sound Transit board membership from appointed to directly elected by voters.
“It just seems to make a lot of sense that we would have an elected board for that organization,” Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) told colleagues. “I think we ought to make sure there is proportional representation for the various areas served within the RTA.”
He added that there is “a tremendous amount of distrust about Sound Transit right now. I think we have an opportunity here to build trust.”
Perhaps underscoring Zeiger’s point were the results of a Sound Transit Board special meeting to discuss CEO Peter Rogoff’s performance. The review cited numerous examples of questionable conduct by Rogoff, ranging from profanity-laced histrionics toward agency staff to indifference toward less-than-expected ridership numbers for new projects. He also told a reporter to “go $%^& yourself” when asked about his salary rate. Currently, his annual salary is $328,545.
However, the agency board voted to keep Rogoff, albeit without a pay increase.
SSB 5955 provides a tax credit for the ST3 MVET by comparing the agency’s vehicle depreciation schedule method created in the 1990s, based on the vehicle’s manufacturer’s suggested retail price, to a schedule approved by the legislature in 2006. However, both methods overestimate a vehicle’s worth compared to Kelley Blue Book, which many lawmakers believe should be used instead. The bill applies retroactively to last year’s MVET payments.
Sen. Joe Fain (R-47) wrote in a statement that “I still believe we could have provided more relief, but given the choice between nothing or modest savings, I chose to support this legislation that lowers taxes and addresses some of the taxpayers’ concerns. While I am a regular transit commuter, I’ve heard from many voters who supported ST3 on the ballot but still felt misled by how their car’s value was determined.”
Sponsoring many of the proposed amendments was Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28), who said on the Senate floor that “we all know the underlying bill offers meager relief. It also doesn’t offer anything in the way of real accountability for the organization. One of the incredible things; not only do they have $54 billion to spend, but if they’re overbudget and overtime…there is no forcing mechanism.”
However, an amendment successfully adopted prior to the bill’s passage prohibits Sound Transit from eliminating any of ST3’s bus rapid transit or light rail projects. Critics of ST3 had previously highlighted the fact that the ballot measure did not approve or authorize projects, only the new MVET and a new sales tax and property tax.
Certain provisions in SSB 5955 also call on Puget Sound cities to make it easier for Sound Transit projects to clear their permitting processes.
Yet, the section most likely to draw the ire of House lawmakers is the clause allowing the transit agency to take money from an account created to support educational programs, low-income residents and foster children. The money from the account is generated from a fee as part of the Connecting Washington package passed in 2015, which authorized Sound Transit to seek voter approval for ST3.
O’Ban said that move “actually takes money from the most vulnerable population. I can’t believe that that would be necessary for a bill like that to pass off this floor.”