As the state’s only regional transit authority (RTA), Sound Transit is run by a board of 18 members who are appointed by their respective county executives. That could change if state lawmakers decide to approve SB 5220 introduced by Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) that would reduce the board to 11 members elected by voters in their districts.
Supporters argued at a Feb.27 public hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee that the change would bring greater accountability and transparency regarding the agency’s priorities and financial decisions. Critics say that the current system consisting of local and regional lawmakers provides stronger cohesion to local planning and transit projects.
For O’Ban, the spirit of the bill comes down to the “whole notion of no taxation without representation,” adding that the concept of an appointed board “to me defies…reason and it really defies the long traditions and accepted norms of our society.”
He added that the taxing structure means there is no incentive for them to stay on time and on budget, a problem the agency has experienced repeatedly. “They can keep spending until they get it.”
Former chair of the Eastside Transportation Association Vic Bishop told committee members that “this is all about accountability. There is no accountability to this 17 appointed city mayors and councilmembers by the three county executives.”
O’Ban has been introducing legislation to set up elections for the board positions since 2017, when he sponsored SB 5001. It cleared the Senate in a 29-17 vote but was sent back by the House without a public hearing. Later that year, an investigation of Sound Transit headed up by then-Senate Law and Justice Committee Chair Mike Padden(R-4) recommended making the board positions elected.
In 2018, O’Ban sponsored SB 6301, which failed to clear the Senate Transportation Committee after a public hearing.
One major difference between previous bills and SB 5220 is its bipartisan support; cosponsors include Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) and Sen. Steve Conway (D-29).
However, opponents such as Bryce Yadon with Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) argued that the current board setup allows stronger connections among city planning, counties and agency projects. The situation also can help the agency get necessary local permits for construction work. “With the ability for those in city government to understand their land use control, they’re able to get ahead of some of these long-term transportation planning projects.”
However, when asked by committee members he said the change would result in a different kind of accountability, but not remove it.
TCC was also scrutinized during the 2017 investigation for its relationship with Sound Transit. Its advocacy director Abigail Doerr took a leave of absence from TCC to head up the Mass Transit Now campaign, and since 2007 the nonprofit has received more than $318,000 from Sound Transit.
At the same time, Sound Transit’s critics point to a history of broken promises regarding project scope, cost and delivery date that might otherwise have not happened with elected board members. The cost for a light rail line from Angle Lake to Federal Way recently jumped by $460 million, while ST2’s light rail segment from Seattle to Bellevue across Interstate 90 is expected to cost $125 million more. Light rail segments intended for Sound Move is now planned as part of ST3.
Agency officials say that they’ve incorporated those lessons into ST3 projects by including large contingencies, in order to account for economic downturns and higher construction costs.
Yet, Sound Transit officials have also opposed prior proposals by Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) requiring the agency go back to voters if a project’s estimate cost exceeds 100 percent.
“By having an elected board, that’s more accountability” for project cost overruns, Fortunato said at the Feb. 28 hearing
A similar argument was made by Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost, who told the committee that elections would represent “a change toward more representation, even though the political process can be messy. This seems an appropriate time to provide a reasonable check and balance on the agency to help encourage better performance in the future.”
No further action is scheduled on SB 5220.