The backlash against new Sound Transit 3 (ST3) car tab fees by Puget Sound drivers hasn’t let up.
A recent survey of likely voters in the taxing district found that a mere 37 percent – most of them in Seattle – would favor ST3 if given the chance to vote on it again. State lawmakers opposed to the $54 billion transportation package hope public sentiment will provide the political mandate needed to approve legislation reforming the regional transit agency’s taxing formula and board appointment process.
The survey’s results come as Senate Law and Justice Committee Chair Mike Padden (R-4) plans to conduct investigative hearings into allegations made against Sound Transit. Among them are that the agency is using an unconstitutional method to determine the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) and that they mislead lawmakers about the scope and cost of ST3 when the legislature authorized the ballot measure in 2015.
Of those surveyed, 51 percent said they would vote against it, while 13 percent were uncertain. Almost half were “strongly opposed” to it. In November, ST3 was approved by voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties by 54 percent.
Frustration with the unexpectedly high car tab fees was perhaps reflected in the strong opposition among voters making less than $50,000 a year (57 percent). Anti-ST3 sentiment was even greater among voters 65 or older (61 percent). The telephone survey conducted by Moore Information interviewed 500 people statewide between May 23-25.
With more tab fee bills scheduled to be sent out in the months to come, legislators such as Sen. Dino Rossi (R-45) told Lens that public opposition to ST3 will only intensify.
“I think the public is starting to get it, but it’s taken us a lot of effort to unravel what Sound Transit has done,” he said. “They’re not accountable to anybody.”
In a statement, Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) wrote: “these results simply confirm that support for ST3 is collapsing. We predicted this from what emails, calls, and personal contacts have been telling us. Sound Transit support will continue to plummet as voters open their car-tab bills and experience the shock of this unaffordable tax.”
O’Ban was the primary sponsor of SB 5893, which would replace Sound Transit’s current MVET vehicle depreciation schedule with Kelley Bluebook. Agency officials and pro-ST3 lawmakers have warned that doing so could interfere with project bond financing.
However, O’Ban wrote: “Sound Transit is not going to collapse if it collects $50 billion instead of $54 billion, but taxpayers are suffering real hardship under these sky-high rates.”
Like other ST3 reform legislation this session, SB 5893 cleared the state Senate but failed to advance in the House. However, co-sponsor Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) told Lens that the momentum is now on their side.
“I believe some form of car tab fee relief is going to pass,” he said.
House Democrats introduced a similar bill creating a tax credit program that relies on a 2006 depreciation schedule created by the state legislature. However, some Republicans such as Fortunato say it doesn’t go far enough in providing taxpayer relief.
Another possible outcome of the committee investigation is direct elections for the agency’s 19 board seats, something SB 5001 proposed to do. Currently, the members are appointed by their county executive. It’s an arrangement some board members say helps streamline the local permit process necessary for projects, while critics say it creates an echo chamber.
Right now, “you probably have a 75-80 percent of some form of some car tab relief and a 50-50 shot at an elected board,” Fortunato said.
Other recent challenges within Sound Transit might also be affecting ST3’s declining popularity. Earlier this year, the agency discovered that it had miscalculated the costs of the ST2 I-90 light rail segment by $225 million. It also became embroiled in a legal dispute with the city of Mercer Island over resident access to HOV lanes and now plans to settle for $10 million. However, concerns still linger over the effect light rail construction will have on I-90 traffic.
Though it’s uncertain whether voters will get a chance to vote on ST3 again, Rossi plans to introduce a new bill requiring voter reauthorization every 10 years.
“My motto for them has been ‘We’re Sound Transit and we don’t care because we don’t have to,’” he said.
He added that if the agency supported car tab reform, “I think they’d get everybody off their back. It’s the most in-your-face of this. Those numbers they have right now…those are going to be in the tank come November. If they really want to restore trust, they should probably accept what we’re offering.”