Bethel schools want more transit. Are voters willing to raise taxes to make it happen?

How do Pierce Transit boundaries change?

Bethel School District leaders are asking for action from county officials to expand Pierce Transit bus service boundaries to serve areas in need of public transportation.
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Bethel School District leaders are asking for action from county officials to expand Pierce Transit bus service boundaries to serve areas in need of public transportation.

Seven years after much of unincorporated Pierce County opted out of Pierce Transit bus service, leaders of the Bethel School District want its area to join again.

The Bethel School Board passed a resolution on Aug. 27, requesting Pierce Transit to expand its bus service.

The resolution outlines specific routes along 176th and 224th streets between Pacific Avenue and Meridian Avenue, along Canyon Road toward the Frederickson industrial area and on Meridian Avenue to 224th Street.

The Bethel School District is the third-largest school district in the state, serving 20,000 kids across 202 square miles, including Spanaway, Frederickson, Graham and Elk Plain.

Currently, the single Pierce Transit bus route in the district serves the west side, leaving those elsewhere to walk long distances to find public bus stops — up to five miles in some cases.

“The need for (public transportation) is great out here, especially for low income families,” said Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel.

Much of the Bethel School District used to be covered by Pierce Transit, said Pierce Transit spokesperson Rebecca Japhet.

That changed in 2012, after Pierce Transit was forced to reduce service after losses in funding and a failed proposed sales-tax increase. Boundaries were redrawn, excluding the cities of Sumner, Bonney Lake, Buckley, DuPont, Orting and Sumner, as well as portions of unincorporated Pierce County that expressed interest in leaving the service area.

As it turns out, opting back in is not as simple as it looks.

“Before the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners could consider providing service in that area or any other that’s out of our service area, the law dictates that residents there would need to vote affirmatively to re-enter our service area and pay the associated 0.6% sales tax,” said Rebecca Japhet, spokesperson for Pierce Transit. “Alternatively, they could contract directly with Pierce Transit to provide service by paying the service’s direct costs.”

In Bethel’s case, the expansion would be financed through a 0.6 percent sales tax — or 6 cents on a $10 purchase.

Before that, Pierce Transit would have to change its boundaries — a process that can only be done through annexation or a Public Transportation Improvement Conference (PTIC), comprised of city and county representatives.

In both cases, voters in the area would have to approve a sales tax through a ballot measure.

The entire process “could take up to a year,” said Ryan Wheaton, executive director of planning and development for Pierce County.

Bethel’s resolution, signed by all five board members, was sent to the Pierce County Council and county executive Bruce Dammeier.

The message was clear: Your move, Pierce County.

The County Council, which represents unincorporated areas like Bethel’s, would have to ask the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners to initiate a process of expanding its boundaries.

County Council member Marty Campbell, who also serves on the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners, acknowledged the need for public transportation across the entire county.

“It seems due diligence and thought were not given when they opted out of the service area,” Campbell said.

The topic hasn’t been discussed among the council, but Campbell said he would like to at least see a discussion.

“We do have service needs — not only in that part of the county but in many parts of our county,” he said. “I want to thank Mr. Seigel for looking out for his community and activity bringing it forward.

“I think it would be an interesting conversation, since at the end of the day the final action wouldn’t be ours,” Campbell said.

In August, the Bethel School District opened a Pierce College campus on site at Spanaway Lake to serve students struggling with finding needed transportation to college for Running Start.