Republicans in Olympia are going after Sound Transit, and theyre getting help from a few Democrats.
Republicans in Olympia are going after Sound Transit, and they're getting help from a few Democrats. Sound Transit

Local transit advocates have been keeping a wary eye on a bill moving through the state legislature that could radically change the way Sound Transit operates.

The proposal, sponsored by University Place Republican Steve O'Ban, would switch out Sound Transit's current board—made of 18 regional elected officials—for a separately elected 11-member board of people who wouldn't be allowed to hold any other political office. Current members do not make extra money for serving on the Sound Transit board; the new structure would pay each board member $10,000 a year. Backers of the bill say it's a way to increase the accountability of Sound Transit; opponents say it's an effort to undermine the agency and the recently passed Sound Transit 3 measure.

Until recently, the bill seemed mostly like Republican showmanship. It may pass in the Republican-controlled state senate along party-lines, but transit-friendly Democrats wouldn't bother with it. Then, a convenient storm of backlash against Sound Transit developed and on Wednesday, five Democratic state senators—including some whose constituents supported ST3—stood with Republicans to pass the bill, which will now move to the house.

"This bill is a red herring," says Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which ran last year's pro-ST3 campaign and is partially funded by Sound Transit. "People in the legislature are annoyed at Sound Transit and they’re trying to take it out on them... It's just a giant waste of money."

Comments to The Stranger from the Democrats who voted for the bill seem to indicate Ranganathan is right.

In case you've missed it, here's why battling Sound Transit is currently en vogue: As drivers in Puget Sound have faced higher car tab fees to help pay for the new light rail projects in the voter-approved ST3, Sound Transit has received attention for the formula used to charge those fees. As the Seattle Times has reported, that formula inflates the values of vehicles but it's not new or hidden. It's the same formula Sound Transit (and the Times) used during last year's campaign when creating tax calculators to help voters estimate how much they'd pay if ST3 passed. Still, some drivers are sticker-shocked and they're calling their lawmakers.

"We’re the ones who passed the funding package [to allow Puget Sound to tax itself for light rail]," says Steve Conway, D-South Tacoma. "We’re the ones getting the call from the constituents about why their [car tab] bill is going up so high... This bill is delivering a message to the board about the concern that legislators have on this issue."

Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, had a similar message: "We Democrats don’t agree to what the construct of that bill is, but we do agree with the fact that we are feeling that we have some issues we’d like to talk with people about and we don’t want to be just ignored in this process."

Of the three counties that voted on ST3, Pierce County, which includes Tacoma, was the only to reject the measure. But Darneille's legislative district voted yes.

Bob Hasegawa, a senator from South Seattle with a longstanding grudge against Sound Transit, says he believes the Sound Transit Board "has been insensitive to the needs of the low income folks in South King County" both in decisions about where light rail runs and how to mitigate the effects of its construction.

"At least this would give people in my district somebody they can go to directly to complain about it," he says. "Hopefully that person will have a sympathetic ear because they come from that area."

In a statement, Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, said his support of the proposal "has nothing to do with supporting GOP efforts to undermine ST3."

"Any organization that manages $54 billion in tax dollars should be directly elected and accountable for that purpose," he said.

(Tim Sheldon, a Democrat from Potlatch, voted for the bill too, but he caucuses with the Republicans, so there's really no surprise there.)

It's not clear, though, that changing Sound Transit's governing structure would actually increase accountability, and it could slow down ongoing light rail projects.

Today, Sound Transit board members are elected officials from around the region, so they represent the cities and counties where new light rail lines will run. Some of them are required to also serve on local transit agency boards. As Seattle Transit Blog explains in more detail here, cities and counties would keep the important zoning authority that can determine how fast light rail gets built and where, but none of their leaders would sit on this board. ("Do we find greater transparency and less politics in the directly-elected King County Council, or the Port of Seattle?" STB's Zach Shaner writes. "Of course not.")

Ranganathan says that as Sound Transit continues work on projects included in Sound Transit 2 and begins work on ST3 projects, a wholesale replacement of the board could slow down that work and threaten federal funding.

Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson, who currently sits on the Sound Transit board, says the agency is subject to three levels of auditing and, after significant fuckups in its early years, is now delivering projects on time and budget.

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"If the oversight issue was a real concern of voters," Johnson says, "it would have contributed to a loss in November [on ST3]. Instead what we saw is a real confidence in the agency."

The bill now moves to the house, where it's unclear if it will get a hearing or a vote. Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp told The Stranger he still has to confer with the house's transportation chair, Judy Clibborn. Chopp says he and other Democrats have found the current Sound Transit board easy to work with. "We’re not sure if people will think there’s much of a problem to deal with," he says.

At least one Seattle Democrat in the house, Sharon Tomiko Santos, has expressed support, though. Want to tell your house rep what you think about this bill? Find their contact info right here.