Being a member of the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners is no easy task at the moment, given the reality imposed by voters’ rejection of Proposition 1 in November.
The measure would have funded Pierce Transit by raising the sales tax 3 cents for every $10 spent. Its failure to pass — by just more than 700 votes — will mean service reductions, including limited bus service on Saturdays and Sundays and no holiday service.
Routes throughout Pierce County, including the Gig Harbor and Key peninsulas, will be affected.
Vanpools are of particular concern because they are dominated by people from the peninsulas, said Derek Young, a Gig Harbor City Council member who serves on the Pierce Transit board.
“They’re starting to realize it,” Young said, referring to residents’ awareness of what bus service cuts will mean.
He said the transit agency heard more than 100 comments about vanpools at a board meeting Feb. 11 regarding restoring some weekend service to planned cuts for Pierce Transit.
“They’re fired up, and they’re willing to fight,” Young said. “For the peninsulas, that’s the remaining fight.”
The agency plans to start charging vanpools that cross the eastbound portion of the Tacoma Narrows bridge the $4 toll Pierce Transit currently pays. It also wants to increase vanpool fares by $5, to $55 a month per person, depending on the number of riders and commute distance.
THOSE WHO RELY ON BUS SERVICE
Young’s particular concern is the impact planned service cuts, which are set to go into effect in September, will have on the working poor who have no other way to get to and from their jobs.
The timing of the impending cuts is not helpful, he said, in terms of the struggling economy and keeping marginalized workers employed.
“In a recovering economy, we want people to get back to work,” Young said.
People who are “choice riders” likely will stop using Pierce Transit if they find service inefficient, Young said, but that’s not the case for others who depend on bus and other services to get to and from their jobs and other destinations such as school, church or medical appointments.
About half of the people in Pierce County who use Pierce Transit’s services make $20,000 or less a year, Young said.
“So these are fairly poor folks,” he said. “They don’t have other options.”
Many of the working poor, Young said, are involved in occupations that don’t necessarily have 9-to-5 work hours — think retail and restaurant occupations — and that means the decreased frequency of bus runs will be that much harder on them.
Young predicts businesses will revolt and ask for other options in terms of public transit to ferry employees to and from work, perhaps even going so far as to request a subzone area sales tax increase for a given time to help pay for continued bus service.
People who can’t drive for health reasons also will be negatively impacted, Young said.
PIERCE TRANSIT THE ‘ODD BIRD’
Young said Pierce Transit is unique because other regional transportation propositions have been approved by voters. He cited Sound Transit, which saw voters in November 2008 approve a $17.9 billion measure to expand light rail, commuter train and bus service in the central Puget Sound.
“We’re sort of the odd bird of the bunch that hasn’t done it,” Young said of the defeat of Pierce Transit’s Proposition 1.
That’s on top of a similar ballot measure the year before that failed to sway voters.
He was surprised with some of the opposition to Proposition 1, particularly from the board of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, which voted to oppose measure and cited proposed tax levels that would push sales tax for Pierce County to the highest in the state.
At 9.5 percent, Tacoma and Pierce County sales tax are tied with Seattle, King County and other cities like Kirkland and Redmond for the highest sales tax rates before the proposed increase, the chamber said at the time.
Young said he did his best to explain to chamber members what failing to pass the measure would mean, but by then, it was too late.
Young fears such deep cuts after last year’s failed ballot measure would mean the slow death of the Pierce Transit, as buses become less frequent — a measure of declining efficiency — and riders seek other ways to get to work or to businesses.
“We’re in a death spiral,” Young said.
One of the only options to avoid such a possible fate is in the hands of the state Legislature, which could change the funding model, he said. Asking voters — again — to approve a sales tax increase is probably not in the cards, he added.
Young said a big part of the problem is that Sound Transit depends on sales taxes, which make up about 70 percent of the agency’s revenue. The rest of the money comes from grants and fares, he said.
Another longshot option could come in the form of subregions within Pierce Transit putting a sales tax increase on the ballot — the aforementioned subzone area idea, Young said.
COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE
Pierce Transit board commissioners passed a resolution Feb. 11, directing staff members to revise service reduction plans to include limited bus service on the weekend — a response to riders who cried out for the service since the agency’s board voted in January to cut it by 34 percent starting in September. That plan wold have eliminated all Saturday and Sunday bus and shuttle rides.
The revised plan will reduce annual service hours to about 300,000, or a 28 percent reduction from current levels of 417,000 service hours. The plan adopted last month reduced service to 275,000 annual service hours, a 34 percent reduction from current levels.
The agency has been working to find savings to make the revised reduction plan workable.
Pierce Transit has received $6.2 million in revenue through two Federal Transit Administration “State of Good Repair” grants and congressional approval of the Alternative Fuel Tax Credit. In addition, over a 10-year period (2013-2022), the agency plans to extend the useful life of buses from 14 years to 16 years, as well as eliminate some planned improvements to its maintenance facilities, redirecting a total of $19.5 billion from the Pierce Transit capital plan.
Those efforts combined will add $25.7 million for bus operations in the next decade.
But that doesn’t mean riders won’t feel the pinch of service reductions.
“We were worried it was going to be more severe,” Young said, although he described option No. 2 plans as “brutal.”
Here’s how Pierce Transit’s revised service reduction will affect the Gig Harbor area:
• Route 100, which provides service throughout the heart of the city, would see weekday service modified from its current 6:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. span of service to a 6:30 a.m. start time and a 7:30 p.m. end time. Peak frequency of service will remain unchanged, with midday service reduced from operating every hour to every two hours.
On Saturday, service would start at 7:45 a.m. and end at 6:30 p.m., and it would operate every two hours in both directions. Sunday service would run from 9:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and it would operate every two hours in both directions. Service will only operate to Borgen Boulevard and 51st Street.
There will be no service between Borgen Boulevard and the Purdy Park & Ride, and not all trips to Tacoma Community College will operate.
• Route 102, the Gig Harbor-Tacoma Express, will see weekday service remain unchanged at four morning trips and five afternoon trips. There will be no service on weekends.
• There would be no restoration of special service to events like the Puyallup Fair.
HARD TO ACCEPT
Months after Proposition 1 went down, Young said the defeat still stings. To lose by such a small margin and have it affect so many people is hard for him to accept.
“In this case, it’s a huge impact,” he said. “Those things are frustrating.”
Pierce Transit will host eight public meetings for the revised service reduction plan at locations around the Pierce Transit service area. One will be held in Gig Harbor, from 5 to 7 p.m. March 20 at the Gig Harbor Civic Center, 3510 Grandview St. For more information, visit www.piercetransit.org.
Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_brett.