Since voters rejected a sales-tax increase 16 months ago, Pierce Transit has slashed bus service by one-third, cut its work force by 18 percent and had its service area cut by 30 percent.
Now the transit system plans to ask voters again in November to raise the same tax by the same amount. Agency leaders say the increase would maintain service for those who depend on it and increase schedules on the busiest routes.
The proposed sales-tax increase is the same three-tenths of 1 percent that voters snubbed in February 2011. It would add three cents to every $10 purchase made within Pierce Transit boundaries.
A public hearing on raising the transit sales tax to the maximum allowed by state law is set for Monday. If the transit board sends it to the ballot and a majority of voters approve, the tax will increase from six-tenths of 1 percent to nine-tenths of 1 percent next April.
The increase would generate $28 million a year, said agency spokesman Lars Erickson. Total hours of bus service would be restored to nearly the level before Proposition 1 failed.
Without it, Pierce Transit will be forced to cut back its budget by an additional 38 percent, Erickson said.
Board Chairwoman Marilyn Strickland said Pierce Transit needs the revenue to provide good bus service, especially for low-income riders, people who are disabled, senior citizens and students. These riders count on public transit for the “essentials,” whether it’s going to a doctor’s appointment or to school, she said.
In 2010, 56 percent of Pierce Transit riders were from households with an annual income of less than $20,000.
“We just feel there’s a responsibility to serve the people who rely on transit the most,” said Strickland, Tacoma’s mayor.
She described the current transit system as “pretty degraded” and “fair at best.”
“We want to get it to a higher standard,” Strickland said.
Since voters rejected Proposition 1 with a 46 percent “yes” vote, Pierce Transit has focused on preserving high-ridership routes. With the increase, the transit system would expand peak weekday service and weekend hours and improve commuter service to downtown Tacoma.
“During the peak hours, buses are packed,” said Lynne Griffith, the agency’s chief executive officer.
The 2011 ballot measure would have maintained services and replaced buses with only a nominal increase in service hours, Erickson said.
The new version would increase annual service hours from 417,000 to 580,000 over a smaller territory and add around $7 million for the replacement of buses in the first year, Erickson said.
Pierce Transit’s board reached consensus May 11 to move forward with the three-tenths of 1 percent sales-tax increase. Final board action is scheduled for June 11.
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson estimated Pierce Transit would have to pay $310,000 to put the tax measure on the fall ballot.
A driving force for the measure is the continued decline in the transit system’s sales-tax revenues. They dropped for 10 consecutive months through March, the most recent month for which data are available, when compared year over year.
About 70 percent of Pierce Transit’s budget comes from sales tax. The remaining 30 percent is made up of fares and state and federal grants, Erickson said.
Pierce Transit has cut its annual budget by 7 percent since 2010 – from $91.1 million to $84.9 million. This year’s spending plan includes unemployment pay for laid-off workers and additional operating costs resulting from the 15-month shutdown of the agency’s natural gas refueling station.
A fire and explosion in February 2011 damaged the Lakewood facility, forcing bus operators to drive to SeaTac to refuel. Pierce Transit expects those increased labor costs to be reimbursed later. The station resumed refueling buses last month, Erickson said.
Pierce Transit finished cutting total hours of bus service by 33 percent in October. Thirteen of 51 routes were eliminated.
“I truly believe a lot of people in our community were totally shocked when services ended,” Griffith said.
The cuts prompted several cities with minimal or no service to request that Pierce Transit’s boundaries be redrawn. As a result, Sumner, Bonney Lake, Orting, Buckley, DuPont and some unincorporated areas – all with little or no service – were either drawn out of the system’s boundaries or opted out.
Pierce Transit convened a countywide panel that revised the boundaries effective last month. The areas that no longer fall inside the boundaries will continue paying a total of about $7.5 million in annual sales-tax revenue through Sept. 30.
The boundaries were not redrawn in a way to specifically include transit supporters who would approve a sales-tax increase, Griffith said.
But Strickland said that because communities had the option to leave, “we were able to find out who truly does support public transportation.”
Opponents of Proposition 1 said during the 2011 campaign that Pierce Transit hadn’t done enough to cut costs.
Griffith said last week her agency has worked hard to reverse that perception.
“We’ve done everything we can think of to be as efficient as we possibly can short of eliminating additional major services to the community,” she said.
Since February, Pierce Transit has been in contract mediation with the union for its bus operators, mechanics, mechanics’ supervisors, customer-service staff, and some administrative staff.
Those 717 employees have been without a contract since July and haven’t received a cost-of-living adjustment since the last contract, Erickson said.
None of the agency’s 141 nonrepresented employees – including 42 in management – has received a cost-of-living adjustment since 2009. Griffith has earned the same annual salary of $169,000 since 2008.
The transit system’s cuts have affected ridership. In 2010, Pierce Transit recorded 14 million boardings. It’s on target to meet its goal of 11 million boardings this year.
Despite tough economic times and the failed ballot measure last year, Griffith said, people recognize public transportation as an important community asset. She said it’s essential for getting people to jobs and attracting employers to Pierce County.
Strickland said she’s optimistic voters will approve the tax increase. Part of the challenge is gaining the support of those who don’t ride the bus, she said.
“I think it has a good chance of passing,” Strickland said, “if we’re really able to communicate to people the importance of public transportation.”