With the fate of Pierce County's bus service literally hanging in the balance, Gig Harbor City Council and Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners member Derek Young said somberly Tuesday night that he remained hopeful later voting returns would save Pierce Transit's Prop 1 from the demise it seemed headed for. Initial returns showed the three-tenths of one percent sales tax hike in Pierce Transit's boundary area failing, albeit it by a slim margin.
"There's still a path to victory," Young said Wednesday morning. "The gap narrowed a bit last night, but we need some big movement from tonight's results."
Wednesday evening brought a movement. And then a slight retreat.
Results released at 4:40 p.m. provided the glimmer of hope transit proponents had been waiting for. Though Prop 1 still trailed, the deficit was down to 735 votes. Young told me Pierce Transit officials estimated 110,000 Pierce Transit district ballots were yet to be counted at that point.
If things continued to trend in Prop 1's direction, this meant enough ballots remained for the proposition to make up the difference and take the lead.
"Obviously we would rather be ahead at this point, but the trend is heading in the right direction," said Young. "We were down 1500 last night but just 735 tonight. Our GOTV push was tremendous. Volunteers made thousands of contacts to turn out transit supporting voters. It looks like it may have worked."
There was hope. More results were due around 10 p.m.
As it turned out, those results arrived a bit early - around 9:30 p.m. It wasn't the news Young and other transit supporters wanted to hear, with Prop 1's deficit growing by 94 votes. The last results of the day have the effort down by 829 votes, or a score of 49.71 percent to 50.29.
Young, still riding the roller coaster - and the fate of Prop 1 still very much in the balance - was left to wait out another night hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Based on estimates that 100,000 ballots remain countywide, he said Pierce Transit officials estimate 61,000 remain to be counted in the Pierce Transit district.
"We slid back a bit, but still look good for the day," he said.
While the supposedly pro-business, anti-sales-tax crusaders fighting Prop 1 in Pierce County say even a three-tenths of one percent sales tax hike is too much, and that Pierce Transit has failed to respond to calls to operate more efficiently and is wasting money, Young's concerns are warranted. Pierce Transit officials - who aren't blowing smoke, as is evident by the basic math of the situation - say a failure to pass Prop 1 would only further devastate a public transportation operation already crippled by dropping sales tax returns and reduced ridership.
Sales tax revenue makes up 70 percent of Pierce Transit's budget - and it continues to fall in Pierce County. So does Pierce Transit ridership, precipitously, thanks in no small part to the substantial cuts that already occurred after Pierce County residents failed to pass an identical proposition last in February 2011. Rural areas of Pierce County like Sumner, Bonney Lake, Orting, Buckley and DuPont left the Pierce Transit district all together, erasing riders, and more importantly - at least in terms of the problem at hand - shrinking the area Pierce Transit collects sales tax from.
Under the authority granted to the transit agency, a sales tax hike like the one proposed by Prop 1 is the only method available for increasing funding. Pierce Transit currently collects six-tenths of one percent sales tax within its boundaries, with the authority to go up to nine-tenths - which approving Prop 1 would accomplish.
How bad could it get? Pierce Transit officials estimate that without passing Prop 1, within five years Pierce Transit's service could be reduced to 75 percent of the service hours offered in 1980. Some have even speculated that it could lead to Pierce Transit ceasing to be.
For important perspective on the problem, 50 percent of Pierce Transit's ridership has a yearly household income of $20,000 or less, and 75 percent of its ridership brings in less than $40,000 a year.
In other words, failing to approve Prop 1 will have dire implications for Pierce County's most vulnerable citizens - one of the many reasons Young has said he's "terrified" by the possibility of the effort failing.
More results are due Thursday. Until then we wait.