Could the second most populous county in the state cut its already greatly reduced bus service in half - or even scrap it completely? It's hard to fathom, but that's exactly the doomsday scenario facing Pierce County. With sales tax revenue making up 70 percent of Pierce Transit's budget, sales tax projections continuing to fall, and reductions in service triggering a drop in ridership, the situation has become what Gig Harbor City Council member and Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners member Derek Young describes as a "negative feedback loop."
Fifty percent of Pierce Transit's ridership has a yearly household income of $20,000 or less, and 75 percent of riders have a yearly household income of $40,000 or less. In addition to standard bus service in the county, Pierce Transit is responsible for providing paratransit shuttle service for people with disabilities. And it all adds up. Thanks to the faltering economy and Pierce Transit's heavy reliance on sales tax, the agency has experienced four straight years of declining revenues, with only more of the same forecast.
Despite all of this, voters rejected an identical three-tenths of one percent sales tax increase in February 2011 that would have helped the agency maintain services and its service area. Pierce Transit currently collects six-tenths of one percent sales tax within its boundaries, with the authority to go up to nine-tenths.
"For some people who don't have access to transportation, this is their lifeline," says Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, chair of the Pierce Transit board of commissioners.
This decision by voters to reject a sales tax increase in 2011 has already resulted in Pierce Transit being forced to cut services by one-third, and led to a service area reduction of 30 percent - reductions that have hit many riders hard. Some rural areas of Pierce County - places like Sumner, Bonney Lake, Orting, Buckley and DuPont - have left the Pierce Transit district all together, with many of these outlying areas questioning whether the taxes they were paying to be a part of the Pierce Transit district were worth the increasingly shoddy bus service they were receiving.
Now, facing further declining sales tax receipts and recommendations for further cuts to Pierce Transit's revenue forecast, officials say that without a sales tax increase -- bumping up to the full nine-tenths of a cent sales tax authority available to the agency -- within five years Pierce Transit's service could be reduced to 75 percent of the service hours offered in 1980.
Shocking, right? It might be the optimistic view. According to Young, if November's sales tax measure meets a similar fate as the 2011 effort, it will be time for board of commissioners "to start thinking about whether or not Pierce Transit will continue to be viable."
In other words, it'll be time to start serious discussions about whether Pierce Transit can survive.
Young tells Seattle Weekly he's not the only commissioner on the Pierce Transit board who has expressed such sentiments.
Strickland, the board's chair, isn't quite ready to go down that road yet, but agrees there will be some tough decisions ahead if November's sales tax measure fails.
"We have not had, as a board, that conversation. We know we have to have that conversation, but we have not formally sat down and discussed it," says Strickland of exactly what the plan will be should the measure fail.
"If this measure doesn't pass this November we're looking at some pretty drastic cuts," Strickland continues. "The question becomes: 'Are we going to try and spread out services to not really serve people, where we have schedules that are so far apart that it degrades the service? Or do we try to concentrate on a few productive routes and just focus on those.' So that'll be the issue that we'll face."
The nuts and bolts of the situation are pretty basic: Roughly 70 percent of Pierce Transit's budget comes from sales tax collected within its boundaries. About 14 percent of the budget comes from the fare box. The bulk of the rest is made up of federal and state money, with the federal money awarded based on merits like ridership and efficiency.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
In the last year and a half, sales-tax projections for Pierce Transit have dropped precipitously. In February 2011 it was expected that sales tax revenue would grow by 4 percent by 2013. At this point that projection has dropped to an expected increase of only 1 percent.
In terms of services, in February 2011 it was expected that with the current sales tax rate Pierce Transit would be able to offer 418,000 service hours a year, which is the level the agency is currently operating at. By August 13 of this year that estimate had dropped to 197,000 service hours, which is the level services will need to be trimmed to if Prop 1 gets defeated - a roughly 53 percent reduction.
While the Pierce Transit board of commissioners may not have formally discussed what will happen if the sales tax measure fails, that's not to say it hasn't been discussed informally.
"There would certainly have to be a robust policy decision by our board on what to do with service at that level. But we have to make some plan so the public understands what kind of service we could provide at that level," says Pierce Transit spokesperson Lars Erickson. "If we're cutting 53 percent of service compared to where we are today, we would have to eliminate all weekend service completely. We would also have to eliminate all service past 7 p.m."
Erickson goes on to list the possibility of cuts to Pierce Transit's SHUTTLE service for the elderly and disabled, and significant reductions in frequency for some of Pierce Transit's most depended-upon routes -- like Route 1, the agency's most used. Currently, during peak hours, Route 1 runs every 20 minutes. If Prop 1 fails, it's likely to be more like every hour.
Compounding the difficulties facing public transportation in Pierce County, Pierce Transit's reduction in services has equated to a predictable loss in riders. With many rural areas having decided to leave the district, and still more riders having ditched the bus because of reduced routes and services, it means Pierce Transit is bringing in less in sales tax, less at the fare box, and less in federal money.
Gig Harbor's Derek Young
Add it all up and you have what Young calls a potential "existential crisis" for Pierce Transit.
"It's not a threat, it's just the reality of where we'll be at," says Young of the potential of Pierce Transit closing up shop should this November's sales tax measure fail. "It's terrifying. ... There are so many things that are wrong with where we're headed."
"It'll be profound," says Strickland of the potential cuts. "Pierce County is the second largest county in the state. We should have reliable bus service, period."