Bus service in Pierce County could be reduced by 20 percent in October and another 15 percent early next year as the local transit agency implements cuts to shore up its sagging budget.
Those are among recommendations the agency’s leadership will make to the board of directors following the failure of a proposal to raise local sales tax to help pay for bus service, Pierce Transit spokesman Lars Erickson said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, voters soundly defeated Proposition 1, which would have raised the sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percentage point.
Vote totals from the Pierce County Auditor showed the measure failing with about a 46 percent yes vote and a 54 percent no vote. It needed a simple majority to pass and would have raised about $30 million a year to further subsidize the public transit system, which carried some 18 million riders in 2009.
The agency’s board will meet in a study session Feb. 28 to discuss how and when to implement a reduction plan that will cut service from the current 618,000 hours a year to about 401,000 hours.
The proposed reduction plan already has been discussed and debated in numerous public meetings. It includes changed routes, some discontinued routes, longer waits between buses, shorter service hours – particularly on weekends – and discontinuation of special-event service to the Fourth of July Freedom Fair and the Puyallup Fair.
Board Chairwoman Claudia Thomas and CEO Lynne Griffith both said Wednesday there will be much study, thoughtful consideration and analysis of the election results before decisions are made.
The agency isn’t talking about whether it might try to repackage the measure and propose it to voters in a different form, as is sometimes done with school levies and bond issues that fail.
“We haven’t identified our options yet,” said Thomas, a Lakewood City Council member and former mayor.
As Pierce Transit officials and volunteers from the Save Our Buses campaign dealt with the loss at the polls, there was much politicking going on over local transit systems and how they’re funded:
The House Transportation Committee conducted a legislative hearing on HB 1536, which would authorize the state’s large public transit systems to collect a $30 per vehicle “congestion reduction” fee in each of two years.
Anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman issued a news release saying the transit tax failure reaffirmed the “no-new-taxes” message voters sent to Olympia last November, when they repealed the sales tax on soda and bottled water; rejected a limited state income tax, and passed legislation requiring a vote of the people or a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes of any kind.
State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur called the Proposition 1 defeat “a landslide” and congratulated the voters of Pierce County on their wisdom. “If a service is broken, throwing money at the problem will not fix it,” he said. “Voters in Pierce County recognize this, and it is time the rest of the state takes note.”
Erickson took issue with Wilbur’s comments, calling it “bumper-sticker type political rhetoric.”
“Our employees work very hard to provide quality service,” Erickson said. “They have been recognized as some of the best in the industry.”
During the campaign, opponents assailed Pierce Transit as a poorly managed, top-heavy agency that hasn’t done enough to cut costs. They were particularly critical of a 4 percent raise bus drivers received last summer, even as the inflation rate was in minus territory.
Agency leaders replied they’d saved nearly $90 million in cuts, higher fares and efficiencies, including two rounds of layoffs since 2008.
As to alternative ways to fund public transit, Erickson said Pierce Transit always welcomes additional tools, but is focusing on its “what’s next” mission, rather than pouring time and effort into legislative bills and campaigns.
At the legislative hearing, Pierce Transit strategic adviser Jessyn Farrell and speakers from agencies in Snohomish and King counties said a different funding source is crucial to maintaining public bus service.
The agency now collects six-tenths of 1 percent in sales tax on every dollar spent within its borders. That raised some $64 million last year – more than 50 percent of the agency’s local operating budget.
“We knew it was a risky thing to do in the (economic) climate,” Thomas said of the sales tax proposition. “We felt we had no option because it (bus service) is so badly needed” by people who don’t have cars, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, students and commuters.
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659 Kris.firstname.lastname@example.org