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Light rail: Federal Way pressures Sound Transit for answers
Federal Way kicked off another part of the campaign to get answers from Sound Transit regarding light rail.
On Jan. 17, the city council unanimously approved a letter to Olympia that addresses Sound Transit's apparent lack of transparency and forthcomingness regarding light rail.
"There are many, many questions that the city has about the money Sound Transit is collecting from Federal Way taxpayers, as well as the level of services being provided, especially in light of the broken promise to bring light rail to Federal Way," Mayor Skip Priest said. "Frankly, they are issues important to the entire region."
State Auditor Brian Sonntag's office recently launched a performance audit on the regional transit company. The audit will focus on discrepancies in ridership statistics and how Sound Transit fulfills obligations to the public.
Despite voter approval for the plan in 2008, Sound Transit has announced an indefinite delay in extending light rail past South 240th Street and into Federal Way. Priest said Sound Transit has, for all intents and purposes, seemingly abandoned the South Sound for the time being.
"Sound Transit's abandonment of the Federal Way area suggests large problems with (the) agency's management and culture that will have serious ramficiations for the Puget Sound region. We're hopeful that the State Auditor's office can bring some sunshine into a murky and not transparent agency," the mayor said, referencing an upcoming audit of Sound Transit and a previous letter the city sent to the auditor.
Priest referenced the amount of tax Sound Transit currently takes from Federal Way citizens, which is about $13.5 million a year. For the time being, that money won’t be used to do anything for Federal Way residents.
"Our citizens are struggling to keep their houses, dealing with job losses, paying for their children's education, and that's $13.5 million out of their pockets this year," Priest said.
Dini Duclos, perhaps the most outspoken member of the council regarding Sound Transit's issues, re-iterated the need for Federal Way and all of South King County to get answers from Sound Transit.
"I just want to remind everybody that Sound Transit made a promise to us back in 2008, that they would bring light rail to Federal Way by 2023," she said. "And under that promise, our people gave Sound Transit the authority to collect sales tax around the tri-county region. And as you heard tonight, our people pay about $13.5 million a year. There have been a lot of broken promises, but most of them to us down here in South County."
Duclos emphasized that Federal Way and South King County residents have the most need of a strong transit system, and that so far, they are being let down by Sound Transit.
"I speak for those people who are making marginal incomes, but are still being taxed," she said. "And paying something to Sound Transit. And they expected something from that. But instead, we have supported projects in Seattle and Bellevue, two places that are very rich and have sent their poor out of their city limits."
Sound Transit is a large agency that, so far, is being held accountable to no one, Duclos said.
"We have asked repeatedly for information. I specifically want to know where our money has gone. And they refuse to answer us. They give us vague responses and letters that have no information in them whatsoever."
Duclos feels the answer is to urge state lawmakers to pressure the agency through legislation.
"No government agency should be without accountability. They should be transparent. Some of the things...they have over 127 people making over $100,000 a year, and earning about 55 percent of their salary, in addition, in benefits," Duclos said. "That's outrageous."
Nearly 80 percent of Sound Transit’s revenues come from sales tax revenues collected from five subareas. The total shortfall for the five subareas is about $3.9 billion, according to Sound Transit. The South King County subarea’s projected sales tax revenues are down 31 percent — a shortfall of about $850 million.
According to the original plan, Federal Way was supposed to see a station at South 272nd Street by 2023. The ultimate goal for Sound Transit is to eventually connect the King County system with Tacoma.
Federal Way officials estimate the city’s taxpayers will have paid $400 million total into the Sound Transit light rail by the time the project is finished in 2040 — regardless of whether light rail reaches the city. That estimate is for both ST1 and ST2, the current voter-approved measures, according to the city.
Federal Way's suggestions
Priest talked about a few things the city suggests in the letter:
• Transit Tax Fairness Act: If a project can't be completed, then how are dollars still going to be made available to the taxpayers?
• An annual performance audit.
• An explanatory statement that says if an issue is going to be on the ballot, then it must be clear, concise and fully explained.
• Sub-area equity review: Priest said there's a pattern of decisions being made and then using subarea equity to justify them, instead of subarea equity guiding the decisions.
• Ballot format: The letter referenced the city's perception that Sound Transit has created a permanent taxing authority for itself through ST2, which was approved by voters in 2008.
To read about the initial Sound Transit 2 (ST2) measure approved by voters in 2008, click here.