Following two work sessions investigating Sound Transit, top-ranking Republican lawmakers on the Senate Law and Justice Committee say the results prove the regional transit agency misled the legislature and voters regarding the true cost of ST3, and the authorization language for that measure is unconstitutional.
Among their lists of recommendations, lawmakers propose directly electing the Sound Transit Board; a concept that some transportation experts say is necessary to make the agency accountable and restore public trust.
In an October 23 letter to four committee chairs in both the House and Senate, Chair Mike Padden (R-4) and Vice Chair Steve O’Ban (R-28) also claimed the investigation uncovered inappropriate links between Sound Transit and the nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC), an organization which receives money from the agency and advocated for ST3.
Some of the recommendations from the October 23 letter include legislation that would do the following:
- Make Sound Transit’s Board directly elected, rather than appointed;
- “Substantial and meaningful” tax relief on the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET);
- Explicitly prohibit non-profits that accept public funding from lobbying the state legislature;
- Clarify restrictions on coordination between local/state government with organizations to gain greater taxing authority for that government entity; and
- Limit political activity of local and state agency employees in a campaign directly connected to the agency.
“Sound Transit played fast and loose with the truth,” Padden wrote in a statement. “It kept key facts from the Legislature and the voters. It displayed disregard for laws designed to ensure full disclosure and prevent public resources from being used for campaigns. Sound Transit has given government at all levels a black eye.”
However, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff dismissed the letter’s conclusions in a social media post. “Sound Transit will not be distracted or slowed by political sideshows. We remain focused on delivering essential voter-approved projects.” The letter also was sent out without a committee vote, a fact highlighted by Democrat committee members such as Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43), who was not consulted on the letter prior to its release and disagrees with the findings.
The letter came after two work sessions on September 26 and October 5 featuring testimony from Sound Transit officials, legal experts and TCC Executive Director Shefali Ranganathan. The investigation was inspired by a May 11 letter by then-Sen. Dino Rossi (R-45) and O’Ban following a public outcry against unexpectedly high car tabs as the result of ST3’s MVET. That letter questioned the legality of the ST3 ballot language and argued it was pitched to state lawmakers in 2015 as a $15 billion transportation package, rather than the now-estimated $55 billion in total spending.
The first work session tackled ST3’s constitutionality and the total cost. Legal testimony was mixed on the ballot language, but the 7,000 documents obtained by the committee from Sound Transit as the result of a public information request failed to provide any instance in which the agency planned to seek more than the $15 billion requested of the legislature.
The second session probed the relationship among Sound Transit, TCC and the pro-ST3 Mass Transit Now campaign. Sound Transit is a member of TCC and pays the advocacy organization $35,000 annually in membership dues. In September, a Seattle Times column described the nonprofit as “almost an auxiliary government agency, influencing the highest levels of governance in Washington.”
Last summer, Sound Transit released 173,000 email addresses of ORCA card holders to the Mass Transit Now campaign. Although email subscribers of Sound Transit are subject to public disclosure, ORCA cardholders are exempt. Those emails had been requested by Abigail Doerr, TCC’s advocacy director who had taken a leave of absence from TCC to head up the Mass Transit Now campaign.
Testimony provided at the October 5 meeting suggested ambiguous separation among these entities. Referring to Mass Transit’s request for the ORCA cardholder emails, Ranganathan told committee members that “We were never aware of whether or not these emails were disclosable…When we found out, we immediately removed those emails.” The conflation was noted by Padden, who later requested clarification. Ranganathan also admitted that TCC had been reimbursed by the campaign for Doerr’s absence.
Although an outside investigation cleared Sound Transit for releasing the emails, Padden and O’Ban’s letter states that the law firm hired by the agency “had a long-standing relationship with Sound Transit’s legal office” and even allowed them to review a draft of the report and make suggested revisions.
The October 5 meeting also looked at the information, or lack thereof, provided to voters prior to the ST3 vote. Sound Transit Media Relations Specialist Geoff Patrick pointed lawmakers to the website that was available for voters to calculate their new tax burden if the measure was passed, along with the mass transit guide sent to voters. However, in his testimony John Niles of Smarter Transit told committee members that the website only showed the total amount owed and not the breakdown of each tax.
In addition, although the mass transit guide included the MVET of $80 for every $10,000 in assessed value, O’Ban argued that it failed to mention or include the 1996 depreciation schedule on which vehicle values would be based.
O’Ban said, “I’ll posit that the average voter who read that (guide) would think ‘This is the market value, this is what I paid for the car’…the average voter isn’t going to think ‘Oh, this is the 1996 depreciation schedule that’s based on MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price).”
It remains to be seen whether O’Ban and Padden’s recommendations will catch on in the legislature. SB 5001 introduced during this year’s session would have made Sound Transit’s Board directly elected. Although it cleared the Senate with bipartisan support, it failed to land a hearing in the House Transportation Committee. Legislative efforts by both Republicans and Democrats to provide car tab relief were also unsuccessful. Also, a legal challenge against ST3’s ballot language has yet to be filed.
Of all the recommendations made in the October 23 letter, Washington Policy Center’s Cole Transportation Center Director Mariya Frost says direct elections is the most important. She told Lens that “this is the overarching problem behind all of these issues” highlighted during the work sessions.
“The issue of a directly elected board is a nonpartisan issue,” she said. “It’s very important to have people on the board who represent the whole district. There are people in the district who may not agree with Sound Transit’s vision. Why is their voice not important?”
With the majority of voters now opposed to ST3, Frost says reform is the only way the agency will be able to get future packages approved. “I don’t think it’s in Sound Transit’s best interest to continue taking advantage of the public if it wants to survive in the court of public opinion.”