Pierce Transit might eliminate local bus service in much of the county in 2012 unless it can find new money to balance its budget.
Service would be eliminated in most of East Pierce County, Northeast Tacoma, Gig Harbor and Steilacoom under one scenario described by Pierce Transit officials in a meeting with The News Tribune’s editorial board Wednesday.
One solution: a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase that would have to be approved by voters. New state or federal revenue also could help save bus service.
Pierce Transit chief executive Lynne Griffith said the agency faces an unprecedented funding crisis as the recession pummels its chief source of revenue: the sales tax.
Without new funding, “we’ll inevitably hit the edge of the cliff and have to make some radical changes,” Griffith said.
Currently Pierce Transit provides bus, shuttle and vanpool services across most of Pierce County. Last year the agency saw 15.6 million passenger boardings.
But while use of local transit services was up nearly 15 percent from 2006, the agency has struggled to balance its budget as revenue declined during the recession.
The sales tax accounts for about 70 percent of Pierce Transit’s $119 million operating budget. Fares and grants account for most of the rest.
From the agency’s founding in 1980 through 2006, its sales tax revenue grew at an average rate of 6 percent a year. That allowed Pierce Transit to expand its system and pay for rising operating costs.
But the recession and unemployment have taken a toll on consumer spending, and Pierce Transit saw its sales tax revenue plummet more than $40 million from 2007 through 2009.
The agency has responded by trimming staff, reducing service, raising fares and seeking operating efficiencies. The result: about $72 million in savings.
But long-term funding problems remain. Sales tax revenue is still declining and isn’t projected to return to 2007 levels until 2016.
As a result, Pierce Transit will either have to find new money or dramatically reduce service, Griffith said.
If forced to rely on current revenue sources, the agency would eliminate local service in many areas by 2012.
The areas that could be targeted for service cuts include a huge portion of the county geographically.
But Pierce Transit spokesman Lars Erickson said the affected areas are less densely populated than the county’s urban core, where service would still be provided.
Still, even in urban areas buses would run fewer hours and stop less frequently. Weekend service also would be reduced.
The agency would reduce the number of bus routes from 51 currently to 23 routes. It would reduce total annual service hours from 622,000 to 265,000.
Griffith said those plans are “back of the napkin” calculations. The agency would seek public input before finalizing the cuts.
To prevent dramatic service cuts, the Pierce Transit Board may consider asking voters to approve a three-tenths of one percent sales tax increase. That would allow the agency to slightly increase service over existing levels.
Griffith said it’s also possible state and federal funding could help offset declining sales tax revenue.
The bottom line: “By mid-2012 we need to have new revenue,” she said.
Pierce Transit isn’t the only agency experiencing tough times.
Public transit agencies across the country have raised fares and reduced service because of declining revenue, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
More than 80 percent of public transit agencies have seen flat or declining revenue, the association reported.
The Pierce Transit board has not decided whether or when to ask voters to approve a tax increase. County Executive Pat McCarthy, a member of the board, said it will seek public input before making a decision.
Beginning next month Pierce Transit will host a series of public meetings to explain its predicament and seek feedback.
The agency board is expected to decide how to proceed this summer.
McCarthy praised Pierce Transit for reviewing its 30-year-old system in light of tight resources.
“As a public, we want everything,” McCarthy said. “We want expedited service. We want service countywide and we want it in every nook and cranny. But there’s a cost to that.”
Griffith said Pierce Transit will continue seeking efficiencies and will seek to provide the best service it can.
“Dollars will determine how well we can do,” she said.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341