By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Just a few hours before tonight’s Sound Transit “neighborhood forum” in West Seattle (6 pm, Alki Masonic Center), the ST Board‘s regular meeting centered on a briefing/discussion about the effects of Initiative 976:
We were downtown for the meeting, which – after an occasionally raucous public-comment period – began with ST staffers briefing the board. First – “where we are” in terms of ST’s current timeline for expansion programs. If revenue were cut, the projects through 2024, the board was told, would be the “last places” they’d cut. But the projects starting with 2030 – projected opening date for the West Seattle extension – potentially different story.
General counsel Desmond Brown then opened with toplines on “what 976 says and does.” … “The provisions repealing our taxes do not take effect at this time,” but rather once $2.3 billion in outstanding bonds and debt are paid off – and it’s up to the board when those debts/bonds will be retired.
(Added – from the slide-deck printout, the relevant ballot-pamphlet language:)
The outstanding bond contracts provide for motor-vehicle-excise taxes and rental-car rates staying at the current rates until those are paid off. Brown said. He also noted that the initiative is now being challenged in court, and if it stands, there will probably be an ensuing lawsuit about when that debt has to be retired. Could ST be forced to retire it sooner? There’s legal precedent on that, Brown said.
CEO Peter Rogoff pointed out that other agencies “that feed passengers to Sound Transit” – such as Metro – are nonetheless facing “very serious” challenges because of 976. Other transit agencies face a “devastating” loss of revenue, and service to their users. “Sound Transit cares deeply about what happens to all our partners,” Rogoff said.
Chief Financial Officer Tracy Butler picked up from there. If the bonds were “defeased,” it would mean $7.2 billion less in revenue through 2041, and the agency could run out of “financial capacity as early as 2029” – which means ST could have to cancel or delay projects and/or reduce services.
But delaying wouldn’t be much of a solution, Butler said. Say, projects are delayed by five years – that could cost $6 billion more in capital costs, %16 billion in added interest through 2061, and could delay a “tax rollback” for 12 years, costing taxpayers $25 billion more in additional taxes through 2061 “to fund a delayed voter-approved program.”
Board chair John Marchione said the reason voters approved ST3 was a recognition that transit expansion was long overdue. “This is our region’s transportation catch-up plan” and the investments require a tax investment. “The only available sources are the sales tax, property tax, and MVET. Nobody loves writing a big check for (vehicle renewals)” but he believes voters spoke loudly with ST3 – and that was louder than the margin, in the ST district, spoke with 976:
After a closed-door executive session, the board emerged to discuss its “response to 976.” It was first announced that ST won’t take any of its own legal action right now – they have to keep reviewing the “legal issues” and monitoring the other litigation. So individual board members were invited to speak. Only two did, neither from Seattle/King County. The first warned that the board had best not just focus on its “district” but should pay attention to the “frustration” elsewhere in the region and state. And he said the valuation discrepancy that led to the taxation rate made that frustration worse. “We have got to get this resolved – people need to believe they’re paying car tabs based on an accurate valuation of their vehicle.” Another board member said it’s important to keep the pressure on the Legislature.
So bottom line remains “too soon to say” what happens next, but there’s a chance West Seattle light rail could be delayed or even canceled as part of a worst-case scenario.
Earlier in the meeting:
PUBLIC COMMENT: In this section of the meeting, before the 976 discussion, Youngstown property owner Dennis Noland spoke first, thanking the board for agreeing to include the Andover/Yancy alternative in environmental studies. He was followed by Tim Eyman, author of 976, who called his initiative an “overwhelming repudiation” of ST. “People outside Seattle have no voice any more.” Eyman then declared he was running for governor next year and at that point got booted from the microphone, with an explanation that “campaigning” isn’t allowed. Someone briefly chanted “let him talk” while someone counter-chanted “No campaigning.” … Other speakers were both pro and con 976. Two speakers in particular called out the effects that 976 could have on people with disabilities.
TONIGHT’S MEETING: Again, if you see this before 6 pm, that’s when ST’s West Seattle “neighborhood forum” begins – all welcome – Alki Masonic Center, 4736 40th SW.
ADDED: Post-board meeting, ST published this statement from board chair Marchione.