State auditor’s office looking into Sound Transit’s practices

Currently, the members of the Sound Transit board of directors are appointed, not directly elected.

Per state law, they’re chosen from among officials elected by cities and counties in the Puget Sound region.

That’s why the agency has experienced delays in getting its projects done, and why the law should be changed to have the board members specially elected as Sound Transit board members — at least according to a Seattle think tank.

“There’s just no accountability for Sound Transit,” said Michael Ennis, transportation director for the Washington Policy Center. “There’s no way for the public to directly reward or punish Sound Transit for good or bad decisions.”

The State Auditor’s Office is planning to conduct a review of some of Sound Transit’s practices, prompted partly by a request from the policy center, spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said.

At least a couple of board members strongly disagree with Ennis’ contention.

They say changing the structure of the board would have done nothing to cure the economic recession that is costing Sound Transit revenue. Sound Transit is predicting more than a $3 billion drop in revenue by 2023, taking a chunk out of the $17.8 billion package approved by voters in 2008.

Board members are still accountable to the people who elect them at the city or county level, said Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine, who serves on the Sound Transit board.

“If people don’t like what’s going on in their area, they have their board member who they can say to, ‘What are you thinking, what are you doing?’” Marine said.

Each county executive in the Sound Transit service area makes the appointments from among elected state and county officials within their county. The nominees are then confirmed by the county council.

The appointments are guided by population, including a requirement that each county executive appoint a representative from the largest city in each county.

Two sales-tax measures for Sound Transit have been approved by voters, in 1996 and 2008. Sound Transit has built light rail from downtown Seattle almost to Sea-Tac Airport, runs commuter rail between Tacoma and Everett and has added express bus service.

The 1996 measure also promised light rail from downtown Seattle to Northgate within 10 years. Construction only recently began on a line to the University District.

The 2008 plan proposed extending light rail to Lynnwood by 2023. This plan is still on track, though some bus service has been reduced, said Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, a vice chairman of the Sound Transit board.

In Federal Way, however, Sound Transit has said it can no longer fulfill the element of the 2008 plan that called for light rail to be extended there. Dollars for projects are allocated within the regions in which they are raised, and south King County has taken a 31 percent hit in its tax revenue, according to the agency.

Ennis said Sound Transit’s own ridership projections before its 2008 plan went to voters were unrealistic. To illustrate his point, he noted Sound Transit’s ridership projections in 2008 were far different from those by another agency, the Puget Sound Regional Council, a planning organization.

Sound Transit said 310,000 people per day will ride light rail and Sounder commuter trains by 2030, while the regional council puts the figure at 164,400 daily trips by 2040.

Ridership projections are among the subjects for the audit, Chambers said. Others include how agency is fulfilling the promises in its 2008 plan and how it is responding to concerns from a previous audit.

These found problems with Sound Transit’s procedures after the first ballot measure in 1996. Those have been corrected since Joni Earl became Sound Transit’s director in 2001, said

“Joni Earl is truly a very talented and very gifted manager,” Reardon said.

Reardon said while in the Legislature, around 2000, he proposed a bill to change the system to have the members directly elected. At least one similar bill introduced this year has already failed.

“I’ve come full circle, knowing all the nuances and the interplay,” he said.

He said having city and county officials on the Sound Transit board improves communication and planning.

“It was structured so the jurisdictions could work together,” said Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts, who also serves on the Sound Transit board. “There was a reason it was structured that way. The idea was to integrate those systems.”

Marine also is the chairman of the board of Community Transit, which is appointed in much the same way as the Sound Transit board.

By implication, changing the law for Sound Transit could also change it for Community Transit and several other organizations who also appoint their board members, said Snohomish County Councilman Dave Gossett, who is on the Community Transit board and last year served as chairman.

Other organizations that appoint their board members from among city and county officials include the Snohomish Health District and Water District Inventory Areas, which coordinate environmental watershed planning.

“I don’t like the idea that when you don’t like the policy of an agency, you think the solution is to change the government,” Gossett said. “Changing governance doesn’t solve policy issues.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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