The Anderson Island ferry. Photo via Wikipedia

Steve O’Ban, ST3 Foe, Is Paving the Way for a New Tax to Support Drive-On Ferries

O’Ban has been a leading critic of the transit plan, but doesn’t seem to mind the idea of a new tax to help fund people’s car trips to a South Sound island.

Like most of the best isles in Puget Sound, there isn’t much to Anderson Island: A general store, a tasty barbecue joint, little traffic and lots of views.

The island, the southernmost in the Sound, is accessed via a Pierce-County-run ferry out of Steilacoom. At present, ferry operations are funded by county road dollars, as well as fares collected by ferry riders, most of whom drive on to the ferry in cars and cough up $20 for the privilege.

However, Pierce County says that, in the long run, the ferry is not financially sustainable, and is looking to open up a new stream of revenue to fund it. Specifically, the county wants the state to give it the power to create a special property tax district, in which homeowners in the district would help pay for the service to be maintained. At present, only walk-on ferries—those that don’t support vehicles—can be supported by such a property tax district. But a bill now moving through the legislature would facilitate the creation of a taxing district to support vehicle ferries; its primary sponsor is Sen. Steve O’Ban, a Republican from University Place whose district includes Anderson Island.

And that’s where this gets interesting, from a Seattle perspective. When he’s not making it possible for Pierce County to create a new tax that would help people drive to Anderson Island, O’Ban has been a leading critic of Sound Transit, and has introduced a slate of bills aimed at undercutting its ability to deliver on the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 transportation package approved by voters by an 8 point margin last fall. Perhaps most audaciously, O’Ban was co-sponsor of an unsuccessful effort to allow municipalities to essentially opt-out of paying ST3 taxes, a measure that would have rescinded from Sound Transit the very kind of taxing authority he hopes to give Pierce County for the ferry. He’s also joined with Sen. Dino Rossi in questioning the constitutionality of ST3.

To some, the dual efforts speak to the double standard that many policy makers in Olympia hold for transportation projects, depending on whether the projects support mass transit or car travel.

“I think it raises a fair philosophical question: If you don’t like a certain program, do you have the right to pull out of that program but still receive the benefits of public spending for programs you do like?” Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, says. Carlyle, for his part, took a lot of heat last fall for opposing ST3, and was also one of just a handful of senators to vote against O’Ban’s ferry-tax bill. He argues their both wrongheaded because they use property taxes to fund transportation instead of schools.

Last week the pro-ST3 group Transportation Choices sent out a press release calling out several of O’Ban’s bills as efforts to “delay Sound Transit Progress.” When asked about the ferry-tax bill, executive director Shefali Ranganathan says it was typical Olympia politics.

“It’s interesting that some legislators have one standard for transit and a completely different standard for other transportation projects,” says Ranganathan.

O’Ban did not return a call for comment on the bills.

O’Ban, of course, is not the only lawmaker in Olympia taking aim at Sound Transit. As taxpayers start to dish out for the voter-approved transit expansion, some are reporting sticker shock. That’s in part because of some fine-print in the plan that taxes cars based on a value that is often times greater than the Kelly Blue Book. There is a bipartisan effort—again led by O’Ban—to change that part of the law.

However, Republicans who oppose ST3 are clearly trying to press their advantage with bills that would affect Sound Transit far beyond how car tabs are tabulated. Along with the bill to allow towns to opt-out of paying their ST3 taxes (which died in committee), there is another bill that would make the Sound Transit board elected. While proponents of the bill say it would make Sound Transit more accountable (“Sen. O’Ban warns without elections Sound Transit could spend and tax forever,” the senate GOP tweeted on March 1), transit advocates say the real intent is clear.

“This bill is a transparent attempt to override the will of the voters in approving Sound Transit by adding yet more veto points to the process,” Martin H. Duke wrote on Seattle Transit Blog recently. The elected-board bill has passed the Senate, but may not get a hearing in the House.

As for the ferry district bill, it seems to be enjoying strong, bipartisan support. It passed the Senate with ease, with a similar measure making its way through the House. One of the few notes of dissent comes from a member of O’Ban’s own party, who used some of the same antitax rhetoric that’s being deployed against ST3.

“There is no way I am going to support any kind of tax that is going to fall on the heads of low-income people so people who can afford a plush place on Anderson Island can get their ferries paid for,” Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, told the Tacoma News-Tribune. “That just seems fundamentally unfair.”

dperson@seattleweekly.com

More in News & Comment

Puget Sound Prepares For The Big One

Three years after an alarming report made national headlines, locals are quietly preparing disaster.

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.