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Federal Way looks for way to secede from Sound Transit

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Jan. 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
January 26, 2012 4:43 pm

Federal Way is firing a shot across the bow of Sound Transit.

The city is upset that Sound Transit expects to scrap plans to bring light rail to Federal Way by 2023 as part of the $17.9 billion mass transit measure voters approved in 2008. The agency’s tax revenues from South King County have dropped by nearly a third, so the agency plans to delay the extension to South 272nd Street until 2034 or later.

Now six proposals tied to Sound Transit have surfaced in the Legislature with backing from Federal Way.

None of them would bring more trains or buses to Federal Way, at least not directly. No one in the Legislature took the City Council up on its call to force more service or rewrite the rules about how money must be split between regions. Mayor Skip Priest said it was hard “to educate legislators” on technical issues and get action in a 60-day legislative session.

But Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, proposes creating a five-member board elected by the public to govern Sound Transit, replacing an 18-member board made up of appointees of the King, Pierce and Snohomish county executives, plus the secretary of transportation.

Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, has introduced a bill requiring performance audits of Sound Transit every year, with the agency on the hook for the costs.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag’s office plans to look into whether Sound Transit adequately prepared for a downturn in revenues, what it has done to address the changes and other issues. The auditor’s office said today it will pay Portland-based contractor Talbot, Korvola & Warwick $322,000 to do the performance audit.

But the bill that seems most relevant to the South King County predicament comes from Rep. Katrina Asay, R-Milton, which would let cities pull out of Sound Transit when plans fall apart. Right now there’s no mechanism for de-annexing. Here’s what the bill says:

If an authority is unable to complete the regional transit system plan as approved by the voters or the plan exceeds either the original cost estimate or the time for completion estimate by ten percent, the legislative authority of a city may request to be excluded from the boundaries of the authority. Upon receipt of a resolution from the legislative authority of a city requesting exclusion from the boundaries of an authority, the commission shall redraw the boundaries of the authority to exclude the boundaries of the city and the excluded area is no longer subject to any taxes imposed by the authority.

It would apply to future ballot measures and wouldn’t get city residents out of paying the half-penny sales tax added by the 2008 measure.

Asay said she doubts the bill will even get a hearing.

Priest said whether the bills move this year is not the point.

“This is a long-term discussion for the city of Federal Way,” said Priest, a former Republican legislator. “It’s the city of Federal Way this year that is not getting a thoughtful approach by Sound Transit. It may be some other city next year.”

Sound Transit says it has no choice but to follow its voter-approved plan for how the money is divided, and can’t cancel one area’s projects to help another. Money collected from taxpayers within one part of Puget Sound is supposed to benefit that area. The agency said in a letter last week to Federal Way:

While it is clear that you would like us to eliminate or reduce projects in other subareas to complete the light rail extension to S. 272nd Street, the Sound Transit Board is legally obligated to allocate funding for projects in accordance with the ST2 project plan, and the financial policies approved by the voters in 2008.

Asay said her other proposals would promote transparency at the ballot. They would:

  • Prohibit asking for money for capital projects and money for operations in a single ballot measure, as Sound Transit did in 2008. Asay said it should be more clear what each of the two kinds of funding would cost and how long they would last.
  • Require a ballot title to state how long a tax will last. Asay said it wasn’t clear enough on the 2008 ballot that operating taxes would be  permanent.
  • Require the voters’ pamphlet to contain all relevant information about the measure rather than referring people to more information online or upon request. It might require a thicker voters’ pamphlet to hold the kind of detailed plan and appendices that the agency drew up in 2008 for the measure it called Sound Transit 2. The appendices included warnings that projects might be scaled back if a region’s revenues didn’t meet expectations.

“They’re getting ready to go out for another Sound Transit 3,” Asay said, “so we just want to make sure those voting on the measure have the information they need to make an informed choice.”

The agency hasn’t yet decided if and when it might go out for more taxes.

A Sound Transit spokesman, Geoff Patrick, said the agency has no position yet on the legislation but said it’s understandable that South King residents are disappointed with the delays.

The bills are notable for a name that’s not on them. Priest and the City Council put in requests to its three local lawmakers, Asay, Miloscia and Sen. Tracey Eide, but Eide declined, saying she wants to wait for Sonntag’s findings before deciding what needs to be done.

Eide, a Federal Way Democrat, said the state may not need to get involved in a regional issue.

She said it’s premature, “quite frankly, to lob bombs — and that’s what i think these are —  instead of thinking these out logically and finding a solution to the problem of how we can get service down to the south end and ultimately to Pierce County.”

Priest said he’s no bomb-thrower and he’s not asking for anything “over the top.” He’s trying to work with Sound Transit on several fronts, he said.

Here’s some of the correspondence in the war of words:

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