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Legislature shouldn’t squander opportunity to correct Sound Transit’s excesses

Fact: Sound Transit’s (ST) 2015 bid for a massive $54 billion expansion, mostly for light rail, was approved by a large majority of voters in Seattle, and smaller majorities elsewhere in King and Snohomish Counties. Pierce County voters rejected the measure.

Fact: Within months of approving the ST 3 plan, taxpayers began to see just one aspect of the bill. That’s when the full, unblemished reality of checking “Yes” broke through and enthusiasm for the ambitious ST3 mega-spend began to crash.

Many years before a single Link light rail train would rumble through Lynnwood, Tacoma or Issaquah, it was the US Postal Service that delivered the bad news – soaring car-tab fees – to owners of more than 2 million vehicles in ST’s regional district. The hardest luck cases saw hikes of hundreds of dollars per vehicle. Under these circumstances, the whiplash of buyer’s remorse was inevitable. Voters expressed outrage, feeling strangled by a deal they hadn’t fully understood.

It’s clear from the anecdotal data that many voters really do feel duped. How? Perhaps it was a case of mass ambivalence about scrutinizing a pleasant fantasy, abetted by ST having no incentive to dislocate the public from its blissful reverie. The vision was sweet and simple: connect a complex region of disparate communities with a glistening light-rail network that would carry thousands of smiling, relaxed commuters in sleek, gleeful, carbony goodness. The well-funded 2015 election campaign illustrated a future of gentrified transit carriages humming back and forth between the city and the ‘burbs; hives of positive energy.

Jump to now and (shock) some folks feel as though they made a bad choice based on some sketchy, even misleading, information. As with all messes no one else wants to deal with, the issue has been kicked to Olympia where some legislators are trying to bring ST and its sky-high car-tab fees back down to Earth. Midway through the 2017 legislative session, the only progress has come in the form of a milquetoast quasi-solution in the form of House Bill 2201.

HB 2201, which received significant Republican votes when it passed the House, is a creature of compromise. The proposal would make only meager cuts to car-tab fees, despite the undisputed fact that ST gamed the calculation to its advantage by using an outdated method of assessing value that has been abandoned by the Department of Licensing.

It’s unclear what fate HB 2201 will have in the Senate. For now, it’s in the Senate Transportation Committee’s inbox pending action. Committee Chair Steve Hobbs should consider two reasons why taxpayers would be better served if HB 2201 did not become law.

First, legislatures don’t have a strong track record on sustained incremental change. When it comes to fixes like this, a good rule of thumb is “one and done.” The current proposal for a minuscule amount of tax relief simply doesn’t go far enough. Voter anger will continue to fume regardless, but an insufficient solution will cement their discontent.

Second, ST is an agency that has assiduously avoided fiscal restraint. Any weak proposal passed now will send the message to continue doing business as usual. No, a legislative remedy must be resolute and responsive to voter concerns about the lack of oversight and controls. If legislators can’t deliver on those points this year they should get their ducks in a row to do it next year.

Last year, the unelected ST board approved a handful of leases for new office space totaling some $90 million through 2023, according to The Seattle Times. This regional agency designed to operate in three counties also chose to concentrate its operations in the white-hot Seattle commercial real estate market. Meanwhile, ST chief Peter Rogoff last year went hat in hand to Congress asking for more than $1 billion for the planned Northgate to Lynnwood light rail line.

(It’s worth noting that Northgate-Lynnwood was one of the projects to be funded by the 2008 voter-approved “ST 2” plan.)

Not surprising, ST’s criticism of HB 2201 is that it would pinch their cash flow. That may be honest. When you’re spending like mad it will always feel better to have more money, but adopting budgetary discipline cannot become a discretionary choice for ST to make. Until an authority enforces that practice, taxpayers will always be used to cover shortfalls.

Unless the legislature has the will to send a clear message that it will not permit ST to abandon restraint, it should abstain from taking any action until a future legislature can find the stomach for it.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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