Sound Transit Board chairman issues statement after agency’s review of I-976

No action planned at this time but long-term projects could be delayed

The Sound Transit Board of Directors at its Thursday meeting in Seattle began the process of reviewing the agency’s response to the adoption of I-976 by statewide voters.

The measure limits vehicle tab fees to $30 per year. Sound Transit receives a portion of its funding from vehicle tabs, which can run into the hundreds of dollars (based on vehicle value) for people who live in parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties served by the agency that provides light rail, train and bus service. The fee is 1.1 percent annually based on the vehicle’s value.

After the meeting, Board Chair and Redmond Mayor John Marchione issued the following statement:

“While I-976 passed statewide it failed within the Sound Transit District. The current estimate of 53 percent opposition is almost identical to the 54 percent who adopted the Sound Transit 3 program in 2016. For the second time in just three years, the district voters who actually pay Sound Transit’s motor vehicle excise tax have endorsed its continuation to finance the transit expansions our region so desperately needs.

The initiative and the Attorney General’s voter pamphlet summary both make clear that state law requires the MVET (Motor vehicle excise tax) to be collected until Sound Transit’s bonds are repaid. We intend to continue fulfilling our obligation to advance critical voter-approved projects and services while we monitor litigation and closely review legal issues surrounding this initiative. No action by the board is needed or prudent at this time.

Significantly reducing revenues would leave no alternative to cutting and delaying critical projects and services that provide our citizens with a path out of ever-worsening congestion. This would harm our commuters, our economy and our environment at the same time our population growth, gridlock and climate challenges intensify. The greatest threats would fall upon completing light rail extensions to places like Tacoma, Everett, West Seattle, Ballard, South Kirkland and Issaquah, and to expanding Sounder commuter rail service within Pierce County and South King County in response to rising demand.”

Background

According to a Sound Transit news release, state law, as clarified by past Supreme Court decisions and reflected in the initiative itself as well as voter pamphlet language produced by the Attorney General, requires continued collection of Sound Transit’s MVET until the retirement of bonds that the agency has promised to pay back with MVET revenues. Staff will continue to review legal issues and monitor upcoming judicial action on current litigation related to I-976 before updating the Sound Transit Board in early 2020.

Sound Transit’s financial staff on Thursday provided analysis illustrating the level of fiscal and program impact on the agency’s voter-approved projects and services if all outstanding Sound Transit bonds were retired and MVET and rental car taxes backing those bonds were eliminated.

While Sound Transit would lose a forecasted $7.2 billion in MVET and rental car tax revenue through 2041, the fiscal impact to regional taxpayers of delaying voter-approved projects would be far greater.

To illustrate the order of magnitude of these impacts, staff analyzed a hypothetical delay of future Sounder expansions and light rail extensions to Everett, Tacoma, West Seattle, Ballard, South Kirkland and Issaquah by five years, the amount of delay that would be necessary to deliver these projects without MVET and rental car tax revenues. In this scenario, inflation and increased interest costs would require the collection of an additional $25 billion in taxes from local taxpayers. The date by which Sound Transit taxes would eventually be rolled back would be delayed by approximately 12 years.

Plans remain on schedule for the 7.8-mile Federal Way Link extension of light rail from Angle Lake in SeaTac through Kent to Federal Way. Construction is scheduled to start next year and be finished in 2024.

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