Sound Transit will be in legislative spotlight

Lawmakers insisted throughout the 2018 session they wanted to provide some car tab relief but adjourned without doing anything.

Sound Transit should count on getting a share of attention from state lawmakers in the upcoming session.

Car tab relief is one topic. How directors of the regional transit authority are chosen is another. And revoting on how the agency’s newest taxes and expansion could be up for discussion too.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, an unwavering critic of the mass transit agency, will be initiating many of the conversations. But he hopes they won’t all wind up as monologues given that his party is outnumbered in both chambers.

“I know Democrats are in control,” he said. “It’s important to keep attention on these matters. I just think Sound Transit is so poorly governed and has way too much money for its own good.”

Those car tab fees should land atop the things-to-talk-about list. They surged inside the transit authority after voters in 2016 approved a near quadrupling of the motor vehicle excise tax rate to help finance a massive expansion of the light rail system.

Democrat and Republican lawmakers insisted throughout the 2018 session they wanted to provide some relief but adjourned without doing anything.

The House and Senate each passed bills requiring Sound Transit to stop using a 1990s-era vehicle depreciation schedule when calculating the fees and switch to a grid drawn up in 2006 that better reflects a car’s actual value.

Vehicle owners stood to save a few bucks. But Sound Transit said it stood to lose out on as much as $780 million in car tab collections in the coming quarter century, money counted on for financing parts of the expansion. Democrats in the Senate wanted to keep the agency whole, their House counterparts not so much. They never agreed on what to do.

This year O’Ban will make another run at letting voters elect the directors of Sound Transit, a move he argues would increase accountability of the agency’s day-to-day operations.

The Sound Transit board is now appointed. It is made up of 17 local elected officials — 10 from King County, four from Pierce County and three from Snohomish County. The executive in each county makes the appointments. The approach is defended as the best way to force leaders of the region’s cities, counties and transit agencies to work together on expansion like the 2016 plan.

O’Ban said he’ll introduce legislation to carve Sound Transit into 11 districts of roughly equal population. One person would be elected from each district. These would be nonpartisan offices.

It will be similar to his bill that the Senate passed twice in 2017 but the House didn’t consider. Although Republicans ran the Senate then, Senate Bill 5001 garnered votes from three members of the Democratic caucus — Guy Palumbo of Maltby, Steve Conway of Tacoma, and Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma. Those three are still around and at least one may be interested in co-sponsoring this year’s version.

O’Ban has already pre-filed a bill to let voters in any or all of the three counties served by Sound Transit nullify its most recent tax increases via a local initiative.

And, another piece of legislation drafted by the Pierce County lawmaker would put the 2016 mega expansion plan back on the ballot if a future audit finds its costs exceed $54 billion — the estimated tab including financing expenses — or if directors veer from the approved blueprint with significant additions or subtractions of projects.

Those latter ones are unlikely to even get a hearing. But their presence signify the degree to which Sound Transit is an ongoing concern for some Puget Sound lawmakers that cannot be completely ignored in 2019.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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Don C. Brunell is a regional columnist.