By Pat Jenkins
State legislators are talking about changing a funding formula for Sound Transit projects that a majority of voters in Pierce County don’t want but must pay for.
Rep. Christine Kilduff, whose 28th Legislative District includes some of the Graham and Spanaway areas, began working with other legislators on a different plan after constituents received higher- than-expected fees for vehicle registrations and renewals, a staple of the projects’ current cash flow.
Kilduff and other lawmakers from Pierce, Snohomish and King counties – the three-county area where Sound Transit has taxing authority -- are calling for, among other things, possible rebates for low-income constituents and relief from future fees that have been criticized as placing too high of a value on vehicles.
In last November’s general election, voters in the three counties – the benefit area where the agency has taxing authority -- were asked by Sound Transit to approve plans for a massive expansion of the agency’s mass-transit services. The ballot measure was rejected in Pierce County, where it met opposition over the projects’ total cost – an estimated $53 billion -- in relation to the amount and timeliness of improvements here. But it passed in King and Snohomish counties, so Pierce taxpayers are still on the hook. The combined results of voting in the counties determined whether it passed or failed.
To pay for the overall project dubbed ST3, $27.7 billion would be financed with new or higher local taxes. They include a 0.8 percent increase of the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET), better known as license tabs. Other tax funding would come from a sales tax increase of 0.5 percent (which adds, for example, 50 cents to a $100 purchase) and a property tax increase of 25 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation (equivalent to $100 annually for a house assessed at $400,000).
The license tabs fee, which would add $80 a year for a $10,000 vehicle (more for higher-valued vehicles) has gotten the attention of vehicle owners and, in response, legislators such as Kilduff.
“We must have strong relief for future car-tab fees,” she said.
Kilduff supports two legislative proposals to give vehicle owners a break. House Bill 2147 would reduce the value of a vehicle from the manufacturer’s suggested retail price by 15 percent and then apply a deprecation schedule that more quickly depreciates vehicles, reducing the MVET hit on taxpayers that is currently being billed by Sound Transit. And House Bill 2148 calls for an MVET rebate of up to 40 percent for low-income vehicle owners, plus a similar-size rebate on property tax for low-income homeowners.
Other forms of possible relief for Sound Transit taxpayers would come from Kilduff’s proposal (House Bill 2151), which she said would require transit agencies applying for a state regional mobility grant to work closely with Sound Transit and show measurable progress in their projects.
“Government has to work together, and when it doesn’t, it’s the residents who have to pay,” Kilduff said. “Whether it’s high costs or inefficient service, the lack of coordination in our transit agencies is a part of this problem.”
Plans for ST3 call for increased capacity for the Sounder commuter train, 62 additional miles of light-rail service, and expanded bus routes. The schedule for finishing projects includes extending light rail to north Seattle by 2021 and Sounder trains reaching Mercer Island, Bellevue and as far north as Lynnwood by 2023.
Light rail would reach Tacoma after 2024. Other improvements for Pierce County would include two Sounder stations near Joint Base Lewis-McChord and express bus service for part of Tacoma and the eastern part of the county.
In the minds of Pierce County voters last year, those improvements won’t happen soon enough and will cost too much. But supporters of ST3 said the overall project’s expansion of mass-transit options will help reduce traffic gridlock in the South Sound area and throughout the Puget Sound region.
“This is very important to our region’s economy as more people look for a dependable way to get to and from work and school” and local businesses and the Port of Tacoma advocate for more space on roads and freeways “for freight and delivery trucks,” Pat McCarthy, a former Sound Transit Board member and Pierce County executive, said after last year’s election. She was elected state auditor in the same election.
Besides local taxes, funding for ST3 is supposed to include $4.7 billion in federal grants. But that source is in jeopardy after the administration of President Trump announced on March 16 a proposed federal government budget for fiscal year 2018 that would terminate the federal grants program that supports new mass-transit projects throughout the U.S.
For Sound Transit, the most immediate impact would be elimination of $1 billion in funding for the Lynnwood Link light-rail extension, officials said. Trump’s budget, which is subject to approval by Congress, would also block a $500 million request for extending light rail to Federal Way, a key part of eventually extending light rain into Pierce County.
According to Sound Transit, Puget Sound-area commuters and taxpayers would be affected by the loss of more than $5 billion in federal contributions toward voter-approved transit projects.
Sound Transit’s assumption of federal funding was based on federal support in the past.