Pierce Transit budget turns around, outlook bright for 6 years

Staff writerNovember 19, 2013 

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A Pierce Transit bus waits at the Stewart Street Transit Center in October 2012.

LEE GILES III — Staff photographer file, 2012

Months after threats of bus service being slashed and drivers laid off, Pierce Transit now says it plans to expand hours next year and that it can sustain that higher level of public transportation through 2019.

The transit agency shared the improved outlook Monday on the same day its elected board approved starting “community connector” routes for Fife, Milton and Edgewood, as well as “custom bus” service for an Olympia business that’s relocating to Puyallup.

The community connector routes are contingent upon the board adopting the agency’s 2014 budget on Dec. 9.

Pierce Transit said it plans to expand service next year by 3 percent to 427,717 hours, including express service and grant-funded hours.

Spokeswoman Carol Mitchell said the improved budget picture is based on increased sales tax revenue, a 53-percent reduction in compressed natural gas fuel costs, and lower-than-anticipated medical insurance premiums for employees.

Sales tax revenue is expected to increase 3 percent in 2014, 4 percent in 2015 and 5 percent annually from 2016 to 2019, Mitchell said. Sales tax funds about 70 percent of Pierce Transit’s operating budget.

Those sales tax and service hour projections delivered at a study session Monday mark another revision for Pierce Transit.

In July, the board rescinded a 31-percent service reduction because the agency’s sales tax revenue increased beyond projections. But board members warned then that they were only delaying inevitable service cuts. They had projected reducing hours from 392,000 to about 350,000 over the next few years.

That downward assessment has now changed based on nine straight months of sales tax growth dating back to January.

“You’ve got more information now to anchor your projections,” Mitchell said.

The agency expects to end this year with an 8-percent increase in sales tax revenue over 2012, Mitchell said.

Even with a service boost next year, transit hours will be dramatically lower than the 617,000 hours that were in effect in 2008, before voters twice rejected sales-tax increase measures.

Also Monday, the transit board approved adding new service for Fife, Milton and Edgewood in mid-February, spending about $1 million for the one-year demonstration project. Commissioner Kent Keel cast the lone “no” vote.

Because of reductions to related bus Route 501, the net cost will be $759,886.
The two connector routes will provide more local stops for transit users and better service to Puyallup Sounder station. Leaders from the three cities asked for those improvements.

The “custom bus” service project was adopted unanimously. Starting next month, it will transport employees of the Western Institutional Review Board from Olympia to Puyallup, where the private business is relocating.

To avoid a not-in-service trip from the agency’s Lakewood base to Olympia, Pierce Transit also will add an early-morning express route from the University Place Town Center Park & Ride to Olympia.

The total cost for the six-month project is $203,889.
 

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@thenewstribune.com @TNTstevemaynard

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