Along for the Ride

Pierce Transit could be doomed unless voters approve a sales-tax hike in November.

Could Washington’s second most populous county 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 and Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners member Derek Young describes as a “negative feedback loop.”

Pierce County’s Proposition 1—a measure slated for November’s general election which if approved will increase sales tax by 0.3 of one percent in the Pierce Transit district—may make or break the struggling transit agency.

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, Pierce Transit is responsible for providing paratransit shuttle service for people with disabilities. Thanks to the faltering economy and Pierce Transit’s heavy reliance on sales-tax revenue, the agency has experienced four straight years of declining revenue, with more of the same forecast. Despite all this, voters rejected an identical 0.3 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 0.6 percent sales tax within its boundaries, with the authority to go up to 0.9 percent.

“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.

The 2011 decision by voters 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, questioning whether the taxes they were paying 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 0.9 of a cent available—within five years Pierce Transit’s service could be reduced to 75 percent of the service hours offered in 1980.

Shocking, right? That might be the optimistic view. According to Young, if November’s sales-tax measure meets the same fate as the February 2011 proposal, it will be time for the board of commissioners “to start thinking about whether or not Pierce Transit will continue to be viable”—in other words, whether it can survive.

Strickland isn’t quite ready to go down that road, but agrees there will be 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,” she says. “If this measure doesn’t pass this November, we’re looking at some pretty drastic cuts.”

Roughly 70 percent of Pierce Transit’s budget comes from sales tax collected within its boundaries, and about 14 percent from the fare box. The bulk of the rest is made up of federal and state money, with federal money awarded based on factors like ridership and efficiency.

In the past 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 4 percent by 2013. That projection has since dropped to an expected increase of only 1 percent.

In terms of services, in February 2011 it was expected that at the current sales-tax rate, Pierce Transit would be able to offer 418,000 service hours a year—the agency’s current operating level. By August 13 of this year, that estimate had dropped to 197,000 service hours, the level to which services will need to be trimmed to if Prop. 1 is defeated—a roughly 53 percent reduction.

“There would certainly have to be a robust policy decision by our board on what to do with service 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 also mentions 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.

Compounding the difficulties facing public transportation in Pierce County, Pierce Transit’s reduction in services has resulted in 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. 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 closing of Pierce Transit should the November measure fail. “It’s terrifying.”

“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.”