Sound Transit: Voters set no spending limit
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sound Transit argued in court yesterday that it has the power to collect taxes for as many years as necessary, without a spending limit, to complete the entire light-rail line voters approved in 1996.
The 1996 plan called for a 21-mile light-rail route from the University District to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but the costs of tunnels, real estate and other problems forced Sound Transit to reduce that route to a 14-mile starter line between downtown and Tukwila.
An opposition group, Sane Transit, is suing in King County Superior Court to block construction of the 14-mile route, claiming it is substantially less than what voters approved and is therefore an illegal use of public money.
"I think they need to come back to the voters," said Sane Transit's attorney, Bradley Bagshaw.
Light rail is the cornerstone of the transit plan, which was presented as a 10-year, $3.9-billion series of regional rail and bus improvements in mailings to voters.
But Sound Transit attorney Desmond Brown said that because of language in an agency resolution, decision-makers are not constrained by those time and cost figures — instead, such matters are up to the discretion of Sound Transit board members. The provision is part of "Resolution 75," which was mentioned in the ballot title but not sent to voters.
"That is no different from the discretion voters give to their elected officials every year," he said.
Judge John Erlick said he would need at least three weeks to issue a written ruling. Yesterday, he said the case would hinge on what "an average informed voter" thought he or she voted for in 1996.
"Clearly, if voters thought they were getting a $3.9 billion package and a 21-mile rail line as part of a regional transit system within 10 years, ... they're not getting that," he said.
Brown said it would be "the height of paternalism" to assume that a voter couldn't have looked up Resolution 75 by asking for a copy from elections officials.
Bagshaw discounted that, comparing the situation to a bank that enforced a credit-card contract but didn't mail a copy to the cardholder.
"This is a public agency. It ought to be held to at least the same standard as ... a credit-card agency or a used-car dealer," he said.
He argued that a passing reference to Resolution 75 in the ballot title was not enough notification, and that the possibility of a shortened line was not mentioned in the official voter pamphlets or in mass mailings of the plan.
Brown said voters understand that any construction job, from a home remodel to a large transit project, can run into unforeseen costs.
"While it is true that Sound Transit cannot build 21 miles in 10 years, it is following the general goals of the plan," he said.
Light-rail construction could begin by spring if the project passes a federal inspection and receives $409 million in grants for the $2.1 billion starter line. Sound Transit asked for the court case to be resolved quickly so it does not interfere with reviews by the federal government over the winter.
Rather than returning to the voters, Sound Transit anticipates that it will continue to collect tax at current rates — 0.3 percent annual vehicle-excise tax and a 0.4 percent sales tax — beyond 2006, the 10th year after the vote.
Joni Earl, Sound Transit's executive director, said that by 2009 enough cash will have been collected to build the starter line for $2.1 billion.
That raises the question of how much more tax Sound Transit might seek to reach the University District. By next year, engineering studies will reveal the likely cost to extend the starter line northward, officials said.
"There will be substantial monies available," Brown asserted, "but the board will have to assess, at that time, whether to build the line to the U District, or part of the line to the U District."
King County Executive Ron Sims, who is board chairman, has been unwilling to speculate about details of future light-rail funding.
Last spring, Sims, in an early attempt to draft a regional transportation plan, included $1 billion for light rail, which Earl said yesterday was money to reach Northgate, beyond the 21-mile corridor. The regional plan, still being developed, may go before voters next spring.
The Sound Transit board's finance chairman, Kevin Phelps, said there are a variety of cash sources to reach the university and airport: Existing sales and excise taxes could be prolonged or increased, he said. Sound Transit anticipates having $424 million available after the starter line. Federal grants are being sought.
Phelps does not consider the collection of taxes beyond 2006 to be a breach of faith with voters.
"At this point, the need for transportation is as significant today as when the vote took place," he said, adding that Sound Transit compares favorably to local highway plans in which cost estimates have tripled or quadrupled.
"We put together a plan almost five years ago, and out of a $4 billion plan, we're off by 20 to 25 percent as far as completing the original vision," he said.
A piece of that vision, the creation of 19 express-bus routes, was finished today with the addition of new lines connecting Woodinville to downtown Seattle, and Tacoma to the U District. Monday, a third round-trip Sounder commuter train will be added from Tacoma to Seattle.
A short streetcar line in Tacoma is on track to open next year. Most of the agency's 44 transit-center and high-occupancy-vehicle ramp projects appear likely to be done by 2006.
"If we have to go a couple extra years to do this, I think the public will be supportive," Phelps said.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.