Crisis point for Pierce Transit
It’s a small sacrifice for the greater good, Pierce Transit officials say.
They want voters to approve a three-tenths of 1 percent hike in the sales tax to help fund bus service. That’s a 50 percent increase in the tax the agency already collects, and it would add three cents to every $10 purchase made within the transit authority’s boundaries.
Without it, some routes will be eliminated and others severely cut back, agency officials say. Buses would come less frequently. Hours of operation would be reduced.
The money they seek is critical to maintaining the area’s public transportation system at levels that will serve the most people – and the people who need it the most, said Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who’s also a member of the Pierce Transit board.
The agency serves a 414-square-mile area across the county, with routes that also run north to Auburn and Seattle and south to Olympia.
Opponents of Proposition 1 on the Feb. 8 ballot don’t argue with the value of public transit, but they do criticize the agency that provides it in Pierce County.
Pierce Transit is top heavy, pays salaries and benefits that are too generous and hasn’t done enough to redesign the bus system to run on the amount of money available, the No on Prop. 1 campaign says.
People who are struggling to pay mortgages and buy food can’t afford another tax increase, said Pete Chamberlain, a Lakewood resident who’s part of the opposition.
The timing is terrible, transit agency officials admit. But they wouldn’t seek a tax hike during a recession if their revenues hadn’t fallen off the economic cliff.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Strickland, said during a recent campaign kickoff event. “People rely on bus service to get to work. To get to school. To see the doctor. To buy groceries. It’s that simple.”
SERVICE AT STAKE
Still-sleepy commuters climb aboard the No. 1 en route from the Roy Y area to Tacoma as early as 4:05 a.m. weekdays.
They get on the 102 Express from Gig Harbor to Tacoma Dome Station, coffee and newspapers in hand, at 5:53 or 6:18 or 6:43 a.m. and on through the day.
They ride the 408 from Bonney Lake to the Sounder Station in Sumner and on to work in Seattle. Or they catch a bus near the Tacoma Mall or Tacoma Community College and head out along city streets to jobs, schools, doctors’ offices, grocery stores.
Buses roll across Pierce County hundreds of times a day. Thousands ride them.
Pierce Transit logged 18 million passenger trips in 2009.
The agency is fueled largely by the tax paid on purchases within its service area. It already collects six cents on every $10 purchase. That tax was last raised by voters in 2002 after Pierce Transit lost revenue from motor vehicle excise fees.
If voters approve the latest request, the local bus service tax (excluding Sound Transit) would sit at 0.9 percent, the maximum allowed by state law. King County Metro and Community Transit in Snohomish County already collect that amount. Pierce Transit received $63.3 million in sales tax revenues in 2009, a figure down nearly 12 percent from the $71.7 million it collected in 2008 and 18 percent from the $77.1 million it took in during 2007, budget figures show.
During the same time period, total operating expenses rose roughly 10 percent, from $111 million to $122 million. That $11 million came from higher wages and benefits, driven in part by a 33 percent increase in contracted hours for Sound Transit. Though costs for fuel and contracts also rose between 2007 and 2009, efficiencies in other categories offset those, budget figures show.
Bus fares of $2 per adult passenger and 75 cents for seniors, handicapped and youth riders pay for about 17 percent of the agency’s operating costs. Grants, advertising and service contracts make up the rest of Pierce Transit’s budget.
Raising the sales tax to 0.9 percent is expected to bring in roughly another $30 million a year.
Without the tax increase, Pierce Transit will cut its fixed-route service by about 35 percent – from the current 618,000 hours a year to 401,000 hours a year by mid-2012, finance officer Wayne Fanshier said. Some 220 employees will be laid off.
If voters approve the measure, some reconfiguration of routes will take place, but generally the agency would preserve what it has now and add to it over the next few years, CEO Lynne Griffith said.
A fact sheet that Pierce Transit mailed to voters in advance of the election projects growth in hours of around 9 percent by 2016.
Though the Pierce Transit board hasn’t approved cuts, agency officials say riders can expect reconfigured routes, less frequent service and reduced service hours if the proposition doesn’t pass. Buses that now run every 15 minutes would come every half hour; 30-minute waits on some routes would stretch to 60. Service that begins before 5 a.m. might start later in the morning. Weekend hours likely would shrink to 10 a.m.-6 p.m. And the agency would no longer run buses to special events such as Freedom Fair and the Puyallup Fair.
Critics ask: If the tax rate goes up 50 percent, why won’t service levels increase dramatically, too? And if the crisis is recession-based, why not put in a sunset clause designed to end the added tax when the economy recovers?
“They need to go back to the drawing board,” Chamberlain said. “They need to do this without raising taxes.”
The “against” statement he helped write for the Voters’ Pamphlet puts it this way: “Better management, not tax hikes, is the solution. Voters approved a transit tax increase in 2002. It didn’t solve Pierce Transit’s problems then, and it won’t solve them now.”
The three committee members who authored the statement believe the agency can improve service – not cut it – at current tax levels.
Transit officials reply the reasons you won’t see a bigger service increase with a 50 percent tax hike are threefold: They’ve been spending reserves and putting off capital purchases, strategies that have limits; the money the agency has lost “is gone forever,” Griffith said; and the cost of doing business – fuel, wages and benefits, purchase of buses – continues to rise.
As to ending or phasing out a tax hike when the economy improves, Griffith and other transit executives say it isn’t as simple as some might think.
The state and federal government require the agency to have a six-year transportation plan, something it can’t reliably do without a steady source of income, Griffith said. Eligibility for some federal grants depends on consistent income, director of planning and scheduling Kelly Hayden said.
Transit officials also bristle at suggestions they’re mismanaging.
They saw the recession coming and reacted to it sooner than other public agencies, Griffith says.
She points to a list of $89 million in “savings and efficiencies” the agency has undertaken since 2008. It includes layoffs; unfilled vacancies; elimination of cost-of-living raises for non-union employees; postponement of capital purchases and other actions. The agency has also asked more from riders through fare increases in January of 2009 and November 2010.
Overall, though, she and other agency officials say there are a number of costs it’s difficult for any big transit agency to change.
Bus service is subsidized by all, and it never will pay completely for itself, says Hayden. Even on a busy route like No. 1, the $2 an adult rider puts in the fare box covers only a portion of the cost, which averaged $4.74 per rider systemwide in 2009. As to the frequent question/complaint Pierce Transit officials get about “buses rolling around empty,” Griffith and Hayden admit there are times you’ll see them with few passengers.
That’s one of the byproducts of running buses on regular routes every 15 or 30 minutes or so, Hayden says. The agency is using new technology to analyze passenger loads and schedule buses and runs to maximize usage, he added.
No matter how well you schedule, you’re going to have sparse loads at nonpeak times, Griffith says.
Think of buses like Interstate 5, Pierce Transit spokesman Lars Erickson said. The freeway is crowded in the mornings and afternoons and not in the middle of the day.
And the door-to-door shuttle service for handicapped riders is costly by its very nature. It averaged around $39 per passenger trip across the system in 2009, and Pierce Transit made more than 463,000 of them last year.
The agency is working to bring that number down, too, Griffith said, and last year began a promising partnership with MultiCare. More agreements in which private entities share costs with the transit agency might follow.
A LIFELINE FOR SOME
Ella Mae Ottosen wants you to vote yes.
She can’t imagine life without the convenience she has now when she needs to climb aboard the 402 or 413 to get around the South Hill area where she lives.
For more than 15 years, she commuted aboard Pierce Transit coaches from Puyallup to downtown Tacoma.
Now 63 and no longer working, she relies on the bus for her basic transportation needs such as shopping or medical appointments, she said while awaiting the 402 one recent rainy afternoon at the South Hill Mall transit center.
She’s worried that voters won’t understand the need to not only maintain current levels of bus service but to expand hours and routes where possible, she said.
“I try to be as independent as I can be,” Ottosen said. “I’m very concerned” about the outcome of the election, she added, “because that’s the only transportation I have.” Seizures prevent 22-year-old Lisa Einarson from driving, so she rides the 402 in the Meridian area of South Hill. She’ll also take the bus to her new job in downtown Tacoma.
Because it’s her only transportation, she’d “make do” if cuts came, but life would be more challenging, she said.
It’s the thinness of bus service in the hinterlands that has some elected officials such as Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson thinking it might be better if small cities and towns withdrew from the Pierce Transit system and formed their own bus agencies.
Johnson, who sits on the Pierce Transit board, said he won’t vote for the tax hike and will suggest a no vote to those who ask him about it. The Bonney Lake City Council hasn’t taken a formal stand on the issue.
But Bonney Lake leaders and elected officials in a number of other communities complained a year ago they weren’t getting their money’s worth out of Pierce Transit. There was talk of secession, though no decisions were made.
“Pierce Transit is very central. It’s basically Tacoma Transit,” Johnson said.
His city will wait until after the election to decide whether it might pursue pulling out of the transit agency and putting its tax dollars into a system of its own. Last year, Bonney Lake shoppers contributed about $2 million in sales tax to Pierce Transit.
Deb Osborn, a Tacoma caregiver, believes people in all corners of the county benefit when public transportation helps people of all ages, incomes and abilities get around. It takes cars off the roadways, and gets people to work, she said.
“If everybody pays just a little, we all have what we need,” she added. “We win. If everybody pays nothing. We have that – nothing.”
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659