Seven Puget Sound residents are suing Sound Transit for $240 million. Photo by Atomic Taco/Wikipedia Commons

Seven Puget Sound residents are suing Sound Transit for $240 million. Photo by Atomic Taco/Wikipedia Commons

Sound Transit Faces $240 Million Class-Action Lawsuit

An Auburn lawmaker has organized a suit which claims the new car tab taxes are unconstitutional.

Sound Transit is once again in the crosshairs of state lawmakers—this time, in the courts. A class-action lawsuit, partially orchestrated by state Sen. Phil Fortunato (R–Auburn) has been filed against Sound Transit by seven central Puget Sound residents in Pierce County Superior Court.

The lawsuit alleges that the 2015 bill that authorized Sound Transit to go to the voters to approve Sound Transit 3 is unconstitutional. The measure—approved with 54 percent of the vote in 2016—allows for the collection of car tab taxes to fund an infrastructure package to build out the regional Link Light Rail and bus systems.

As a regional transit authority, Sound Transit levies a combination of sales, property, and car tab taxes on residents in the western portions of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties to pay for projects. The seven plaintiffs in the suit all live within the agency’s regional taxing district, two of whom reside in King County. The plaintiffs are seeking $240 million in damages.

Ever since the 2016 ballot measure was approved, the transit agency has come under fire for the way it calculates car tab tax rates. The agency utilizes a valuation formula that was approved by the legislature back in the 1990, one which critics argue doesn’t reflect accurate market values and sometimes inflates the value of cars, hiking up owners’ tax bill. Sound Transit estimated that the tax increase would raise rates by $110 per $10,000 in vehicle valuation, but reports emerged in early 2017 documenting steep increases (such as a raise from $90 annually to more than $260).

After headlines about “sticker shock” circulated, state lawmakers began gunning for the agency during both the 2017 and 2018 legislation sessions, pushing bills that would force Sound Transit to adopt a valuation system based on Kelley Blue Book. However, such bills never gained enough approval to make it to the governor’s desk. Sound Transit has promised to change its vehicle depreciation schedule by 2029 in order to pay off bonds, but argues that changing the system now could cut critical funding and delay or halt transportation projects.

The crux of the argument is that the 2015 bill authorizing Sound Transit to increase taxes didn’t specifically spell out that the agency would be using the ’90s vehicle valuation schedule. “The constitution has that clause to prohibit deceptive things from happening and that’s pretty much what this is,” Sen. Fortunato told Seattle Weekly. “Sound Transit drafted the legislation. If they were to do this properly, the proper way to do it would’ve been to list the [motor vehicle excise tax] schedule.”

Fortunato—who does not live within the agency’s taxing district boundaries, but has long been critical of Sound Transit—said that he originally tried to file a lawsuit making the same argument back in April, but couldn’t get any lawyers to do the work pro bono. The lawyers that are bringing the current case are Joel Ard and David DeWolf, who found the plaintiffs and filed the case themselves independent of Fortunato. DeWolf testified before the state Senate last year, where he raised the same argument that’s made in the current class-action lawsuit.

Fortunato said that he has drafted a senate bill for the 2019 legislative session that would—if passed—prevent Sound Transit from starting construction on new projects, change the vehicle valuation system to reflect current market values, and mandate that the Sound Transit board members be elected to their seats.

In response to the lawsuit, Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick wrote an email to Seattle Weekly stating: “We are confident in the validity of the law and will be reviewing and responding to the lawsuit. Since voters’ decisive approval of ST3 highway congestion has only worsened, and it will continue to worsen. Any reduction of [motor vehicle excise tax] revenues would delay or kill voter-approved transit alternatives.”

jkelety@seattleweekly.com

More in News & Comment

A woman works on a drawing next to an unused viewing scope as a smoky haze obscures the Space Needle and downtown Seattle last August as smoke from wildfires moved across the region. (Photo courtesy of The Herald/Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
Why Do Washington Voters Struggle With Climate Change Policies?

Despite environmental awareness and the public’s apparent desire for reform, statewide initiatives keep failing

Mary Lynn Pannen, founder and CEO of Sound Options, has consulted thousands of Washington families on geriatric care for 30 years. Photo courtesy of Sound Options
Seattle Takes on Elder Abuse as Reported Cases Rise

Local agencies and geriatric care managers aim to increase public awareness about the epidemic.

The Ride2 transit app will offer on-demand rides to and from West Seattle starting on Dec. 17. Courtesy of King County Metro
Climate Action Coalition Urges City to Respond to Seattle Squeeze

MASS asks the city to prioritize reducing traffic and increasing pedestrian safety ahead of the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s closure.

State Supreme Court Strikes Down I-27; King County Will Pursue Safe Consumption Sites

The decision upholds a court ruling keeping the anti-consumption site initiative off the ballot.

Seattle’s Hockey Team And Stadium Are On Their Way

Key Arena renovations will be completed without the use of public funding

Andrea Bernard, Allycea Weil, and Phoenix Johnson (left to right) are Licton Springs K-8 parents who want their kids to stay in the Native-centered program. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Licton Springs K-8 Parents Dismayed by Potential School Move

The PTO says children have benefited from the Native-centered program, and that transferring the pupils would disrupt their progress.

Seattle Municipal Court’s warrant outreach event on Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Seattle Takes Steps to Quash Warrants

City Attorney attempts to address inequities in criminal justice system and enhance public safety.

The King County Courthouse. File photo
King County Council Acknowledges Report on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

Report also says youth of color face a disproportionate amount of disciplinary measures

Federal Way Megachurch Slapped With Another Sexual Exploitation Lawsuit

Lawsuit calls for removal of Casey and Wendy Treat, and CFO, from church leadership roles.

The Centralia Power Plant is a coal-burning plant owned by TransAlta which supplies 380 megawatts to Puget Sound Energy. It is located in Lewis County and slated to shut down by 2025. Aaron Kunkler/Staff Photo
National Report Outlines Climate Change’s Course For Northwest

More fires, floods and drought appear to be on their way for Washington state.

Mustafa Getahun and other Washington Federation of State Employees laundry workers picket University of Washington Medicine at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery on May 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees
University of Washington Laundry Workers Feel Hung Out to Dry

The Rainier Valley facility’s imminent closure leaves over 100 people looking for new jobs.