Pierce Transit’s board is expected to decide Monday whether to cut service this summer or wait until February 2014 as a result of voters rejecting a sales tax increase in November. Either way, bus routes will be cut by more than one-third.
The transit agency had been looking at September as the earliest it would implement cuts. But it developed a new option Friday to make some cuts in June to save more service hours overall, spokesman Lars Erickson said. Staff still recommends carrying out all the cuts in September to make the transition easier on riders, he said.
Regardless of the timing, the cutbacks won’t be as drastic as what the agency had projected in mailers sent to voters before the Nov. 6 election. Pierce Transit said in those cards that annual service hours would be reduced by 53 percent if voters failed to approve an additional three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax.
Now officials say they could limit the cuts to 34 percent in September, or 36 percent if they wait until early next year. It was unclear Friday what the savings would be if they start some cuts in June.
Under any scenario, the agency says:
• Weekend and holiday service will be eliminated, as projected before the election.
• Weekday evening service after 7 p.m. will be reduced but not entirely eliminated as was stated in the mailers.
• On most routes, mid-day service or peak-hour service won’t be cut as severely as predicted.
Pierce Transit attributes the better outlook to union concessions and improved sales-tax revenues in the second half of 2012.
The 53-percent service cut estimate emerged in mid-August. Erickson said transit staff made the calculation at that time to meet a Sept. 11 printing deadline. The agency used the information in “fact pieces” that were placed on buses and distributed at transit meetings in September. Those same cards were mailed to registered voters in mid-October.
A different projection in the Pierce County voters pamphlet turned out to be more accurate. Based on an earlier calculation that Pierce Transit submitted Aug. 7, the pamphlet said the agency would make cuts “in excess of 35 percent” if the tax proposal failed. The pamphlets also went out to voters in mid-October.
Pierce Transit Chief Executive Officer Lynne Griffith said the agency didn’t consider doing another calculation before the election, in part because it takes a week of staff time.
“We knew there were would be a number of factors that would likely impact the financial model that we intended to run again in November,” Griffith said.
Nick Sherwood, who led the Reject Proposition 1 campaign, accused Pierce Transit of trying to mislead voters.
“Fifty-three percent was never an honest calculation,” Sherwood said. “Things didn’t change that drastically. They’re overplaying the change.”
Griffith said Pierce Transit was not attempting to mislead. “We do the best job we can to be as transparent and open as possible.”
Transit union concessions are the major reason cuts won’t be as dire as they could have been, Griffith said.
In mid-August, Pierce Transit and its union for bus operators, mechanics and most other employees had exhausted mediation and were about to begin binding arbitration, Erickson said.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 758 voted Aug. 29 to approve a three-year contract with no cost-of-living adjustments. Those 699 employees also agreed to pay a greater share of their medical costs. The transit board approved the contract Sept. 10.
Another boost came when revenue from the existing transit sales tax of six-tenths of 1 percent started increasing in June after 11 straight months of decreases, Griffith and Erickson said.
Griffith called it good news that the union’s concessions lessened the degree of cutbacks. But the reductions will still be dramatic and painful for riders.
“They’re still very deep cuts,” Griffith said. “It’s not a desirable situation if you’re a transit rider.”
All Saturday and Sunday service will be eliminated. And the frequency of weekday service will be reduced. One entire route – No. 62 through Northeast Tacoma – will vanish, leaving a total of 36 routes, Erickson said.
While waiting for buses in the cold Friday morning at Tacoma Community College, several riders said they depend on the transit system and are worried about the cuts.
“It’s going to affect my job,” said Chris Simmons, 36, of Fircrest.
He sells appliances at a retail store but won’t have a bus to ride to work on the weekends.
“I’ll have to walk,” Simmons said. “(If) they cut the buses any more, it’s going to be useless to even use them.”
Trisha Collette, who’s studying English at TCC, stepped on a bus to go home in Tacoma. Collette, 21, who doesn’t have a driver’s license, is worried she won’t be able to take any night classes.
“There’s a lot of people who take the bus who can’t drive,” she said.
On Monday, Pierce Transit’s Board of Commissioners is scheduled to adopt a timeline and plan for reducing service. Then, after a series of public meetings, the board will likely vote to implement the cuts.
The entire process will take approximately six months before the cuts take effect.
Federal regulations require a detailed analysis of service reductions. Pierce Transit must make sure that minority, low-income and elderly populations are not disproportionately hurt, Griffith said.
Currently, 56 percent of Pierce Transit riders come from households with annual incomes of less than $20,000.
The defeat in November marked the second time in less than two years that voters rejected the additional three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax. Proposition 1, which failed by 704 votes on Nov. 6, would have raised Tacoma’s sales tax to 9.8 percent.
The agency cut its annual service hours by one-third after voters rejected the sales tax increase the first time in February 2011. 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.
Griffith said Pierce Transit is striving to keep “a base system in place that will allow us to grow in the future.” She said the transit board has not discussed asking voters again for a sales-tax increase.