Bipartisan support for Sound Transit reform

Bipartisan support for Sound Transit reform
A new bill introduced by Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) would change Sound Transit’s board of 18 appointees to 11 elected members. The bill cosponsors include two Republicans and two Democrats. Photo: Atomic Taco

Following the passage of ST3 in 2016, state lawmakers have proposed making Sound Transit’s board elected rather than appointed by county executives, something proponents say will make the regional transit agency more accountable. Although those efforts failed to gain traction, a newly introduced bipartisan bill suggest that this time around may be different.

Last year, Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) introduced SB 6301, which would have carved Sound Transit’s taxing jurisdiction into 11 districts and prohibit elected board members from serving in other public offices. However, the bill, sponsored only by Senate Republican Caucus members, failed to receive a public hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee.

A new proposal by O’Ban via SB 5220 envisions a new board consisting of 11 members, as well as the transportation secretary. As with his previous legislation, SB 5220 would create 11 districts and prohibit the nonpartisan elected members from holding other public offices. If passed, Governor Jay Inslee would be required to set up a five-member commission to draw up the districts, which would have to share equal population sizes. The districts would be altered every decade based on Census data.

However, unlike last year’s proposal, SB 5220 has bipartisan support. Cosponsors include Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) and Vice President Pro Tempore Steve Conway (D-29), both of whom voted in favor of a 2017 bill also calling for direct elections; that bill cleared the then-Republican controlled Senate, but never landed a public hearing in the House. Republican cosponsors of SB 5220 are Sens. Randi Becker (R-2) and Hans Zeiger (R-25).

Currently, the Sound Transit board consists of 18 regional and local lawmakers in King, Pierce and Snohomish who are appointed by their respective county councils. Also on the board is the Washington State Secretary of Transportation. In December, the board voted Redmond Mayor John Marchione as chair. The agency is run by CEO Peter Rogoff.

Supporters say that the move would make Sound Transit officials more accountable, while opponents argue that the current system makes it easier to get the necessary permitting from local governments for transit projects.

Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost told Lens that the “Sound transit board needs to reflect the interests of all residents in its taxing district. It should not be…members who only represent those people who support light rail expansion. That does not seem fair. Sound transit should always be seeking to be more transparent.”

Direct elections could also lead to changes in how agency projects are proposed and approved. ST3 imposes three new taxes to pay for a variety of projects that can be amended, changed, or removed by the board.

“I think if that were the case with a directly elected board being able to make those changes it would be that much more important for sound transit to make it clear to the voters that they are voting for tax increases,” Frost said. “Sound Transit definitely marketed this (ST3) as voter approved projects. That might be what they have promised in word and in marketing pieces, but that’s not what voters voted on in the actual complete resolution that was on the ballot in November.”

O’Ban has introduced four other bills related to Sound Transit, but no public hearings have been scheduled. No public hearing is yet scheduled for SB 5220.

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