Transportation issues have dominated our attention in Olympia recently, and our offices have been deluged with a great many phone calls and email messages. These messages have been quite polarized, so we want to take this opportunity to address the issues.
It’s no surprise that Sound Transit is the issue we’ve heard about most. When drivers started receiving their license renewal notices in January, the understandable reaction for many people was surprise bordering on shock, disbelief, and anger. Regardless of whether they voted yes or no on ST3, the sudden spike in the cost of car tabs was unexpected and unwelcome.
Sound Transit was basing their car tab fees on a vehicle depreciation schedule developed in 1996 that was giving inflated valuations. With a bill approved by the House last week, we directed Sound Transit to change to the more current and conservative 2006 depreciation schedule, which will lower the price of car tabs for most people. The bill also requires Sound Transit to refund the difference to people who already paid the inflated amount.
The fiscal impact of the reduced revenue to Sound Transit will be between $1 billion and $2 billion over the next 10 years. That’s a lot of money, and we’ve heard from constituents concerned that a hit that large could severely impact Sound Transit, further delaying a system that is sorely needed. Fortunately, that’s not the case. It’s a large sum, no doubt about that, but when looked at in context, it may be easier to see why we felt returning that money to vehicle owners was good decision: Sound Transit, in total, is a $54 billion proposition, with a $16 billion contingency allowance already in place.
Switching to the 2006 depreciation schedule and easing the bite on vehicle owners will not delay a single on-the- ground Sound Transit project involving rail or bus transit. It’s possible, though not certain, that the shortfall might cause slight delays in some ancillary ST3 activities – parking, for example, or transit-related construction near stations – but not the actual transit part of Sound Transit.
Many of our Republican colleagues in the Legislature pushed for use of the Kelley Blue Book or the NADA Guide rather than the 2006 depreciation schedule. This could have resulted in somewhat lower car tab fees, but had we taken this route, the voter-approved ST3 as a whole would have been in real peril. Neither the Kelley Blue Book nor the NADA Guide is considered reliable in the bond market, where much of the project’s funding is generated. Without bond sales, there is no ST3.
We’d love to see much lower costs to motorists ourselves, and on-time completion of ST3. Unfortunately, the argument for the Kelley or NADA valuations illustrates H.L. Mencken’s wry observation that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
The other big transportation development in the House last week was passage of the bipartisan transportation budget. This $8.7 billion plan does a lot for Washington State.
However, despite a great deal of opposition to toll lanes it did not eliminate tolling on I-405.
We’re not defending the present toll structure, but we will speak up in favor of orderly and objective decision-making. As we write this, it is only five months before a comprehensive two-year sunset review of the current tolling will be conducted by an impartial, out-of- state firm that has no connection to the Department of Transportation.
Data gathered during the two years of the tolling experiment will give us an unbiased look at what has worked and not worked. They will also make recommendations for the future.
It’s likely they’ll notice what many of us here in the district already have: Mobility in some stretches of 405 is better than it used to be, and worse in others. The question is why. We’re convinced that it would be a mistake to have ended the tolls with five months to go in the study period; it is more important to make good decisions than quick decisions. And the fact remains that even if we had voted for suspending the tolls this year, the law wouldn’t have taken effect immediately. Ultimately, we’d save about six weeks in tolls while running a real risk of increasing congestion, slowing traffic even further.
Agree or disagree, we’d like to hear your thoughts on these and other issues. The Legislature may be close to wrapping up for the year, but we still work for you regardless of whether we’re in session. Please stay in touch.
Larry Springer and Roger Goodman represent Kirkland from the 45th District in Olympia.