After it’s tried and failed — twice — to convince voters it needs new revenue to keep mass-transit service at current levels, Pierce Transit has continued its efforts to make do with what it has. Starting this September, that won’t be much. (See our story on page A1.)
The transportation agency that serves most of the county has unveiled plans to drop its service hours nearly 30 percent, from 417,000 hours to about 300,000. With route frequency, along with night, weekend and holiday service all being considered, Pierce Transit knows the cuts will affect some of the most vulnerable people in the population, but it’s running out of options.
Gig Harbor City Council member Derek Young, who sits on the agency’s board of directors, went so far as to call it a “death spiral” in an interview last week. Voters’ voices have been heard, he said, and it’s not likely that the agency will return for a third cry for help.
Like most taxing authorities, Pierce Transit gets a majority of its revenue — 71 percent, according to agency documents — from county sales receipts. Its current collection rate is six-tenths of 1 percent on purchases made within its boundaries, and its 2013 budget is about $158 million. A little more than $25 million will be spent from reserves to balance this year’s budget.
In November, voters rejected Proposition 1, which asked to raise the collection rate to nine-tenths of 1 percent. On the same ballot in which voters approved same-sex marriage and legalizing pot, the transit measure failed to meet a simple majority by a little more than 700 votes.
Now, the fallout.
It hasn’t been fun for anyone involved with the agency. Nor is it fun any time you’re dealing with making cuts.
In our personal budgets, especially those who have been laid off or been forced to take unpaid leaves of absence — who knew what the term “furlough” meant three years ago? — we can predict a lack of income and make adjustments accordingly.
In much the same way, that’s what the transit service is going through. Except it’s not as predictable, because it relies on people spending money on goods and services in Pierce County within the transportation authority’s borders.
Even those contracted a bit last year: The cities of Bonney Lake, Buckley, DuPont, Orting and Sumner, as well as some unincorporated areas of Pierce County, including most of the Key Peninsula, opted out of the transit boundary. That resulted in an estimated loss of $8 million in sales-tax revenue, according to Pierce Transit documents.
Where do we go from here? That’s what transit board members are trying to figure out. They had a tentative plan earlier this year to cut back to 275,000 service hours, so the revised plan to cut back to 300,000 service hours is actually an improvement.
That’s little consolation to the working poor, many of whom will still be disproportionately impacted by service cuts scheduled to go into effect at the end of September — just in time for the holiday season.
There is, however, a ray or two of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy forecast.
Plan B, if there is to be one, could take several forms. Under the most optimistic scenario, the economy would bounce back strongly and provide more revenue for the transit agency’s existing 0.6 percent sales tax and avert the implementation of major cuts.
Unfortunately, that’s more hope than a realistic plan.
While Young doesn’t see Pierce Transit making a third trip to taxpayers to request help, it’s not a completely implausible scenario given the narrow defeat of Proposition 1 last year.
The third time could turn out to be the charm for the beleaguered transit agency if it made some voter-appealing changes to any future measure. Think about a smaller tax increase with a sunset clause. That would motivate Pierce Transit to get and keep costs under control. Like fire and school districts, the agency would have to make a periodic case to voters that their money is being well spent in order to justify continued taxpayer funding.
If something isn’t done, it could be the end of the line for Pierce Transit.