Lawsuit: Sound Transit expansion illegal, car tab fees should be refunded

Construction proceeds on the Sound Transit 3 rail expansion (KOMO photo)

OLYMPIA, Wash. - A new lawsuit could bring a halt to one of the biggest projects affecting Puget Sound commuters and force a multimillion-dollar refund of car tab fees to motorists.

Sound Transit is being sued for how it is collecting millions of dollars to pay for Sound Transit 3 - or "ST3" - the next phase of the light rail system that eventually would connect Everett, Tacoma, Seattle, Bellevue and other communities in a 116-mile rail grid.

The new class-action lawsuit, if successful, could stop the ambitious plan in its tracks.

The suit, just filed in Pierce County Superior Court, claims the formula Sound Transit is using to collect car tab fees to pay for the work was repealed years ago. Therefore, the lawsuit claims, it was illegal to put the ST3 measure on the ballot for voters, who approved it back in 2016.

Sponsors of the lawsuit also want Sound Transit to pay back $240 million to drivers who are paying for the plan through increased car tab fees. Some motorists say they were stunned to see their car tabs double - or more - after the ST3 measure passed.

State Sen. Phil Fortunato says the light rail expansion is already millions of dollars over budget.

"At what point in time that you're wildly over budget are they going to be able to put the brakes on this thing?" he said. "There's no mechanism to do that."

But Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick says backers of the lawsuit are mistaken about the law.

"We are confident in the validity of the law and will be reviewing and responding to the lawsuit," he said. "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."

A hearing on the lawsuit will be the next step in the process.

Meanwhile, work on the ST3 expansion continues. The project envisions creating 62 more miles of new light rail with 38 more stations, linking Everett to Tacoma, extending east to Bellevue, Redmond and Issaquah, and extending west to West Seattle.

The ST3 plan would also add more cars to light rail trains and improve access to Sound Transit stations.

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