The Squeeze: Who watches Sound Transit?

SEATTLE — Sound Transit is a multibillion-dollar a year mega-agency that helps millions of commuters avoid gridlock.

Yet it isn’t above reproach.

The recent public outcry over the car tab surge has some asking for greater scrutiny over the massive board of 18 leaders who are already elected to office elsewhere.

Should a side-job really wield this much power?

For Seattle and Western Washington, it's not easy being popular. An influx of well-paying jobs and rampant infill growth has clogged our roads.

“All you have to do is look out the window on the freeway, either from the bus or your car. Traffic`s gotten worse and worse and worse,” said Sound Transit critic and former King County Council member Maggie Fimia.

So how to fix it and keep our area thriving?

“I think democracy can be messy,” said Mariya Frost, who is with the conservative think-tank Washington Policy Center.

She suggests Sound Transit should blow up and start over with elections.

“Anything that we would do that would increase the amount of power that citizens have is a good thing,” she said.

Frost believes the very structure of Sound Transit is part of the reason we're all in this mess: a system set up to fail.

“The financial burden is not borne by the agency. It`s borne by the taxpayers,” she said.

Sound Transit is a regional agency that covers Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties.

Counties appoint representatives, from mayors to council members, to make up the 18-person panel.

In theory, they work together to help cities and counties have one voice to connect projects and ease congestion.

They pick and then drum up support for ballot measures like Sound Transit 3, but Frost says in some ways they answer to no one.

“That accountability is low. To zero,” Frost said.

She doubts that someone in Federal Way or Edmonds is going to oust a mayor just because of what was done at their Sound Transit side job.

“Public officials with accountability have a strong incentive to honor the voters who elected them,” Frost said.

But who watches Sound Transit?

Call it an inside job.

The cities and counties pick the board, of course, but then the board picks its own oversight panel. It's like being able to pick someone you like for your own job evaluation.

“It has to be independent oversight,” Fimia said.

She says the board has become too enamored with light rail and that a larger focus on buses could help ease traffic now instead of waiting for decades for construction to end.

The pair of critics feel the board failed to prep voters for the tab price jump. Fimia disagrees with Frost that direct election of board members is a solution to keep Sound Transit under the spotlight. Reform has to come from within.

“They can welcome and invite scrutiny and oversight,” Fimia said.

Sound Transit’s spokesperson did release a lengthy statement, saying:

“Sound Transit has opposed the counterproductive changes that have been proposed by some for the agency’s governance structure. The Legislature’s intent back in the 1990s for structuring Sound Transit was to make sure the same public officials who are responsible for local transit systems in the region as well as regional land use and permitting decisions had significant sway in the details of how regional transit infrastructure is built. Keep in mind that the legislation gave voters direct control over what is built, since Sound Transit cannot build any project that has not been directly approved by voters. Many of the proponents of changes are people who have made no secret of the fact they want to undo voter-approved projects.

The proposed changes would remove local government representation on the Board, which could undermine our ability to reach agreements with municipalities and result in longer implementation periods for the system improvements. It also erodes the incentive for the agency to seek mutually-beneficial agreements with municipalities to preserve cooperative working relationships. In some cases the changes would increase the difficulty and costs of constructing infrastructure.

The changes would eliminate the current requirement that 50% of the Sound Transit Board members from each county also serve on the local transit board.  This would diminish integration and awareness opportunities, and could increase costs. There would be increased taxpayer costs from providing $10,000 annual compensation for board members, with the potential of special interests (including anti-transit interests) funding board member elections."