GOP renews push to reform ‘out of control’ Sound Transit

Republicans want lower taxes and a reorganized transit agency, but Democrats are in the driver’s seat.

The passage of Sound Transit 3 in 2016 resulted in a big increase in the agency’s tax on vehicle license-plate renewal. (Herald staff)

The passage of Sound Transit 3 in 2016 resulted in a big increase in the agency’s tax on vehicle license-plate renewal. (Herald staff)

OLYMPIA — Two Republican lawmakers renewed their attack on Sound Transit car tab fees Thursday, urging that a rebate plan passed by the state House be ditched in favor of a GOP proposal to slash rates deeper.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, of University Place, and Rep. Mark Harmsworth, of Mill Creek, also called for action on a bill to have the agency’s board of directors elected by voters rather than appointed by the executives of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

The duo, who delivered their pleas in a mid-day press conference, are longtime critics of the regional transit authority. They’re frustrated with Democrats, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, for not doing more this session to rein in Sound Transit.

“The agency is out of control,” Harmsworth said. “We’ve got a problem here. There is an unwillingness to fix.”

This has been a recurring assertion since Sound Transit 3 passed in November 2016 on the strength of support in Snohomish and King counties. Voters in Pierce County rejected it.

The plan calls for adding 62 miles of new Link light-rail line, including an extension to Everett Station by 2036, via the Paine Field industrial area. Other new light-rail destinations envisioned in ST3 include Tacoma, Ballard, West Seattle, downtown Redmond, south Kirkland and Issaquah.

To pay for the upgrades, the sales tax went up half a percent within the district. There’s also a new property tax assessment of 25 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. And the tax rate for figuring car tab fees went from 0.3 percent to 1.1 percent, resulting in a near trebling of costs for some vehicle owners.

A contributing factor to the surge is Sound Transit’s use of an outdated vehicle depreciation schedule in calibrating increases. That schedule overvalues vehicles, which means higher charges.

All last year Republicans, led by O’Ban and Harmsworth, battled with Democrats on how to respond and they ended without a deal.

A Democrat-drafted bill passed the state House last month and is awaiting action in the Senate. It would force the agency to use a newer state-approved depreciation schedule and give owners a credit for any extra they paid under the old method.

Harmsworth voted for the bill but called it an “itsy-bitsy fix” that will produce small savings for most vehicle owners.

O’Ban said, “The Democratic option is just not going to cut it.”

He’s authored Senate Bill 6303 to base the car tab fee on a vehicle’s actual market value. It requires use of the Kelley Blue Book to get that figure. He said it would result in a 55 percent cut in car tab fees and bring “real tax relief” to those who feel they got “bamboozled” by Sound Transit.

He’s also pushing legislation to shake up the transit agency organizational chart.

The Sound Transit board 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. Snohomish County is represented by County Executive Dave Somers, Everett Councilman Paul Roberts and Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling. Somers is the current president of the Sound Transit board.

Senate Bill 6301 would do away with the appointed board and replace it with 11 independently elected directors.

Both bills passed in 2017 when Republicans controlled the majority in the Senate only to lapse in the Democrat-run House.

This year, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on O’Ban’s car tab bill but not the other.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, issued a statement Thursday saying that he is “working in a bipartisan way to provide real car tab relief while ensuring the transit projects people voted for are delivered.”

But he made clear he would not be advancing O’Ban’s bills, calling them, “unthoughtful sledgehammers that don’t solve the problem, create new problems and do not meet the promise we made to voters.”

The legislative session is scheduled to end March 8.

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

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