Governor called on to veto giveaway of voter-approved transit funding

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Sound Transit and local elected and community leaders are calling on Gov. Gary Locke to veto a bill that would allow private companies to walk away with more than $50 million in voter-approved local funding for Link light rail and Sounder commuter rail.

The legislation, SB 5632, would shift the financial burden for relocating private utilities such as phone lines in roadways and other public right of ways from the private sector to the public, significantly reducing funding for rail transit and establishing a dangerous precedent.

"This is a bad law created to benefit a private interest," said Sound Transit Board Vice Chair and Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg. "With the transportation crisis we're facing, this is the last thing the taxpayers of our region need. Governor Locke needs to stop this blatant raid on public tax dollars dead in its tracks."

Under current law, private utilities such as telecommunications companies are allowed to install their lines in publicly owned right of ways, often free of charge. However, the law recognizes the primary purpose of the right of ways is meeting the public's transportation needs. Local elected officials can require a private utility to relocate its facilities at its own expense rather than the public's.

The law would create a sole exception to this rule for costs of relocations needed to complete Sound Transit's regional mass transit network, including light rail, commuter rail, regional bus service and supporting projects such as transit centers and park-and-ride facilities. In diverting more than $50 million tax dollars it would establish a precedent that private utilities could cite in targeting other public governments to cover costs previously borne by the private sector.

"Every taxpayer should be concerned about this blatant attempt by Qwest, a private company based in Denver, to rob the taxpayers in the Sound Transit's district of funds that should be spent on much needed transit choices. $50 million is more than enough to pay for half of Sound Transit's fleet of light rail trains. This bill would significantly worsen the challenges of fixing our region's transportation mess," said Peter Hurley, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition.

The bill's passage followed an unsuccessful court battle Qwest waged against Sound Transit and the City of Tacoma. The company filed a lawsuit seeking to avoid costs of utility relocations to enable the construction of the Tacoma Link light rail line, scheduled to open in September. The company lost in court but succeeded in misleadingly arguing before the Legislature that it would have no choice but to pass relocation costs on to phone customers.

To the contrary, however, a Qwest representative testified in the lawsuit that "there is no guarantee that the WUTC (Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission) would grant a rate increase and it is very unlikely that any rate increase, if granted, would become effective before 2004."

"This would be a dangerous precedent that could cost cities and counties throughout the state millions and millions of dollars and end up with our taxpayers footing the bill," said Sound Transit Board member Chuck Mosher, who is also the President of the Association of Washington Cities and a member of the Bellevue City Council. "Even though this is represented as a ‘special case' decision, it will likely result in broad and costly impacts and must be stopped."

Mosher pointed out that cities and counties already provide public rights of way usually at no cost to the utilities and should not have to pay to have utilities move their facilities for new transportation projects.

"It's not right that a public entity like Sound Transit should have to pay for moving Qwest's lines," said Pat Matteson, Transportation Chair of the League of Women Voters of Washington.

"Expanding transportation options and protecting our quality of life, economy and environment depends on expanding, not reducing, resources for local elected representatives to build critical projects," said Craig Engleking, Sierra Club lobbyist. "We are confident Gov. Locke will veto this special interest bill that Qwest slipped past the Legislature."

"This is an issue that significantly impacts jobs at a time when we've already got plenty of economic challenges. Reducing the public's ability to build transit projects also takes money from working families and undermines our local economies," said Jim Fitzgerald, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Legislative Council.

In addition to the direct fiscal implications of the legislation, it would also effectively give Qwest and other private companies veto powers over designing and locating future transit projects, establishing negotiation requirements that utilities could use to cause significant project delays and further increase costs.

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Sound Transit plans, builds and operates regional transit systems and services to improve mobility for Central Puget Sound.