Sound Transit bill provides some help, but not real relief

By Mark Harmsworth | Feb 01, 2018

Anger over the high cost of car tabs under Sound Transit 3 (ST3) has triggered thousands of complaints to my office, and to other lawmakers representing individuals and families in the Puget Sound area. The political mandate is clear, the people want change.

Sound Transit and Car-tabs

When Sound Transit originally proposed ST3, they sought $15 billion for the mass-transit expansion project. However, the $15 billion they asked for ballooned quickly. Sound Transit ended up asking voters for 25 years of new taxes. Combined with bonds and federal funding, the complete ST3 package totals more than $54 billion. When Puget Sound residents voted in November of 2016, many had no idea the size of the package they were voting on.

Part of the funding for ST3 comes from state motor vehicle excise taxes (MVET). Most drivers were outraged to discover that in order to collect more money, Sound Transit uses an inflated formula to calculate the worth their vehicle. Frustration with the high fees caused public opposition to ST3 to intensify.

Small help, but no real relief

The state House of Representatives approved a bill last week that would provide a small amount of help for car tabs, but disappointingly, falls short of real relief.

The measure approved Wednesday is a nice idea, but in a side-by-side comparison between this bill and an amendment offered by my colleagues and I, it’s clear it doesn’t go far enough. With our proposal, a 2017 Honda Accord would see a $78 fee reduction. The bill that passed on Wednesday would cut those car-tab fees by a mere $31.

During the floor vote, I argued for real change. However, a procedural motion to amend the bill and provide larger tax relief was defeated by the majority party by a single vote. In the end, I voted yes on House Bill 2201, because it offers a small amount of help to those struggling with ST3’s high car-tab fees.

This is a sad day for the average guy or gal just trying to make it every day. The majority party had an opportunity to make a difference, but instead the people in my district, and others, may not see any relief from these fees until 2040.

Part of the argument for the smaller fix was that by lowering the fees, Sound Transit would be unable to pay for the ST3 project. However, it’s clear the agency is flush with money and has a casual disregard for how they spend it.

Agency accountability

Public agencies are barred from spending public funds for campaigns. But, that does not seem to have stopped Sound Transit, who admitted it gave more than 173,000 private email addresses of ORCA cardholders to their 2016 pro-ST3 political campaign. This lends credibility to the notion there may be other instances of misuse of public dollars.

In 2016, Sound Transit spent more than $850,000 of taxpayer money on a party to celebrate the opening of its Capital Hill and University of Washington light-rail systems. A few months ago, the agency’s governing board approved five office leases in Seattle totaling more than $90 million. They also paid to remodel two floors of offices for Sound Transit’s CEO and executive staff at the Union Station building, overlooking Sodo.

Additionally, Sound Transit has reported cost estimates for the Sounder train station in Kent have climbed from $35 million to more the $65 million. With 550 stalls being added by 2023, they are spending $100,000 per parking space. It seems it’s only when it comes to providing real relief to taxpayers that Sound Transit finds it difficult to spend money.

Elected, not appointed

Because the Sound Transit Board is not directly accountable to the public, how the agency spends money is out of the hands of the people paying for their projects. That’s why several lawmakers, including myself, are calling for reform of the board’s composition – replacing the appointed board with one elected directly by the voters.

You can contact me directly with your comments or suggestions at mark.harmsworth@leg.wa.gov. or by telephone at 360-786-7892 or toll-free at 800-562-6000

Republican Mark Harmsworth served on the Mill Creek City Council before being elected as the representative for the 44th Legislative District in the Washington State Assembly. He has represented the community in Olympia since December of 2014.

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