Sound Transit board member concerned about ‘nightmare scenario’ over car tab fee

Mar 21, 2017, 5:37 AM | Updated: 9:14 am
ST3, Sound Transit...
Seattle Councilmember Rob Johnson expresses concern that lawmakers in Olympia are considering legislation that will push back against the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 car tab fees. (Seattle Channel)
(Seattle Channel)

A Seattle City Council member is concerned about a bipartisan tone in Olympia aimed at Sound Transit and its controversial car tab fee.

“When we think about that kind of conversation down in Olympia, it creates a huge hole in our future capital program,” said Seattle Councilmember Rob Johnson at Monday’s council briefing. “At the same time as the federal government is also creating a lot of uncertainty for ST2 levy projects.”

“So a lot of big concerns for us,” he said. “I think the agency is willing to be productive and work with folks in Olympia. But creating that is kind of fiscally irresponsible, and inconsistent with voter-approved projects, is really, really hard for the Sound Transit board and the Sound Transit staff, as well.”

Related: Fight over car tab costs no longer split along party lines

Johnson is also a Sound Transit board member — a body composed of various locally-elected officials. But the board itself is not elected, which has led to criticism.

Sound Transit push back

Drivers have noticed their car tab fees spike dramatically when ST3 took effect. Sound Transit opted to use an outdated method to calculate car tabs associated with the ballot measure — a method that considerably overstates the value of vehicles. It allows Sound Transit to take in more money. It has also led to some voter’s remorse.

There are currently a few bills in Olympia that address Sound Transit with bipartisan support, such as one that would establish an elected board for the agency. That would potentially remove figures such as Johnson from Sound Transit.

Another, with bipartisan support, attempts to force Sound Transit to use a more appropriate method to accurately calculate car tab fees. But that would mean ST3 funding would come in much less than planned. And that has Johnson concerned.

“One of the nightmare scenarios for us as an agency at Sound Transit is what is commonly referred to as defeasance – basically taking the existing car tab authority, and all the existing bonds that may be released associated with that car tab, back down to the lower evaluation level,” Johnson said.

“That would be about a $6 billion – ‘B’ – billion — hit to us as an agency. To put that into context, that is about the cost of the Chinatown to Ballard line.”

That light rail line is proposed as part of the ST3 package to establish a connection between downtown and Ballard.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien also commented on the issue at the briefing. He didn’t say much but expressed a hope that the city will help find a solution to the issue.

“People in Seattle overwhelmingly supported Sound Transit 3, so I just want to make sure that our team is engaged in those conversations to the extent that the city can play a positive role in finding a resolution that keeps the agency whole,” O’Brien said. “Meaning it keeps the projects we want to see delivered on the committed timeline.”

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Sound Transit board member concerned about ‘nightmare scenario’ over car tab fee