The voters have spoken. Failing by a grand total of 708 votes as of Wednesday night, with only 751 ballots left to be counted in all of Pierce County, Prop 1 is doomed. Public transportation in the state's second-most populous county is about to go back to the dark ages. By rejecting a three-tenths of one percent sales tax hike, those within Pierce Transit's service area will soon be rewarded with a 53-percent reduction in services and some relieved car dealers.
By all indications, it won't be pretty. The poor, elderly and disabled will bear the brunt of the discomfort, as is all too often the case. As Loren Jellico of Steilacoom wrote in a letter to the editor published by The News Tribune in Tacoma, "The bottom line: It was a vote against human decency."
Truer words have never been written.
"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." Pierce Transit spokesperson Lars Erickson told Seattle Weekly in August.
Prior to Prop 1's defeat (which isn't expected to be challenged through a recount), Pierce Transit officials estimated that without passing the sales-tax hike -- which is the only avenue currently afforded to the agency to increase revenue -- Pierce Transit's service will likely be reduced to 75 percent of what was offered in 1980 within five years. 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.
Prop 1's opponents, who proclaimed victory Wednesday, argue Pierce Transit is bloated, mismanaged, and a borderline thieving operation. They say a sales-tax hike would be bad for area businesses, and organizations like the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce -- which opposed Prop 1 -- obviously believed it. Following the money, the anti-Prop 1 campaign was heavily funded by car dealers, a demographic that would have been hit harder than most by a three-tenths of one percent sales tax increase.
Still, the math doesn't lie. Under the authority granted to the transit agency, a sales tax hike like the one that was proposed via Prop 1 is the only method available for increasing revenue. Pierce Transit currently collects six-tenths of one percent sales tax within its boundaries, with the authority to go up to nine-tenths. Trouble is, 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 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.
With the failure of Prop 1, the situation is only going to get uglier.
"There's no way around it, these cuts are going to be brutal," says Gig Harbor City Council and Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners member Derek Young. "I've talked to workers in retail and restaurants who have no idea how they'll get to and from work with buses shut down in the evenings and on weekends. I've talked to people who won't be able to get to church. I've talked to people are out of work but won't have reliable transportation to get to a new job.
"I can't say exactly how this all shakes out and whether or not Pierce Transit will remain viable, but with service this poor, it starts getting really hard to justify the expense."
Those who had been keeping their fingers crossed for a Prop 1 comeback are left to hope for a last-minute state legislature intervention in the coming session that might provide a funding source other than sales tax. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever prayed for action from the state legislature can surely attest to, it's a dicey proposition at best.
"I think it's clear that there's a lot of support for transit. People get how these cuts will hurt our community. But I also heard voters say that they'd like a better way of funding it," says Young. "Unfortunately, Pierce Transit only has the options available that the Legislature grants it. Hopefully the Chamber of Commerce and others who claim to support transit but opposed Prop 1 will join us in Olympia this session to demand a more sensible funding solution.
"There's no direct way to secure more revenue without new taxes. If the Legislature wants to change the funding model, it could be done this session and take effect in July. But if it means another trip back to the ballot, it's hard for me to imagine going that route again."