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What happens when voters say no

Posted by at Apr 01, 2014 06:55 PM |
What does the future hold for King County Metro if Prop 1 doesn't pass in 21 days?

The election to save King County Metro is just 21 days away. Pierce Transit has been held up as an example by opponents of Proposition 1. Its funny, I'll bet these transit haters have not been to Tacoma lately. I happen to live and do a lot of our work in Pierce County. I can tell you, Pierce Transit is not a model; it’s a cautionary tale. Let us take a quick tour of Tacoma to see what devastating cuts to bus service look like. What sort of challenges will the citizens of King County face if Prop 1 doesn't pass on April 22nd?


This photo was taken at 10pm on a weeknight, at the largest transit transfer center, in the heart of Downtown Tacoma. That’s Tacoma Washington, the third largest city in the state, with a population of nearly 200,000 people. Most buses stop running around 7:30. Sunday Service? Almost non-existent.

For some context, the 57 Route is one of the routes connecting Tacoma's two Regional Growth Centers; Downtown Tacoma and the Tacoma Mall. It runs ten times on Saturday, and eight times on Sunday -- the last bus at 4:00pm.

Opponents of Prop 1 have been pointing fingers at Pierce Transit, asserting that they just tightened up their belt and didn't have to cut, or that they made “simple reforms” to avoid cuts. As you can see in this graph, this is just plain wrong.


PT Graph

Credit: Chris Karnes of Tacoma Tomorrow

In 2011, Pierce Transit went to voters to ask for the remainder of their authority for sales tax (.03%). The situation was dire: sales tax revenues had plummeted during the recession, and Pierce Transit was facing enormous cuts if new revenue was not approved. The measure failed, and the agency cut 35% of service.  Additionally, the Pierce Transit Board revised the boundaries of Pierce Transit to exclude outlying rural communities, where service was infrequent to begin with. The combination of  these cuts took service from the peak of 2008 service of 600,860 hours to just under 350,000 hours, a truly massive cut.

In 2012, Pierce Transit was still facing cuts on the horizon. Hoping to restore some of the 43% of service already cut and stop additional cuts, Pierce Transit’s Board went back to voters. They asked again for the .03% in their tax authority. On November 6th, 2012, Pierce Transit’s Prop 1 failed by a heartbreaking 704 votes out of 200,182 votes cast: by no means a mandate against transit or new taxes. In fact, Tacoma residents voted in support of the measure both times.

But wait, isn’t Pierce Transit now adding service?

Yes. Sort of.

The 2.6% increase in service includes a regional mobility grant to enhance commuter service on Route 1 along Pacific Avenue-SR7.

The same problem causing the shortfall in 2011 is enabling the board to delay cuts in 2013. Sales tax, accounting for 73% of Pierce Transit’s revenue, is volatile. Sales taxes from the second quarter of 2012 increased by 5.94%.

This only begs the question: Why don’t we have a more sustainable transit funding source in Washington State? While some would have you believe a state package is imminent, the State Legislature has failed to pass authority for local jurisdictions such as Pierce Transit, King County, and Community Transit to collect less regressive, more stable revenue such as the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) for the last six years. With the Majority Coalition Caucus running the Senate, the odds of that happening anytime soon? Grim.  In 2015, the legislature will be taking up education reform, legislators have gone on record stating that it’s unlikely for a transportation package to see passage.

So what can King County Metro learn from Pierce Transit? Consider this: The number of service-hour cuts on the table in King County are equal to the entirety of service of Pierce Transit before cuts were made in 2011: 600,000 service hours. Almost all of our buses stop running by 7:30pm. Many buses in the urban core run hourly or even less frequently and are beyond crowded. Those who depend on transit to get to work and to medical appointments have to rely on infrequent, unreliable service; students and service workers who work late are forced into cars they can’t afford to maintain. Choice ridership is almost nonexistent.

You have a chance in King County to save service, to continue to provide opportunities for everyone to get where they need to go, to stop 30,000 cars jamming up the streets and polluting Puget Sound and our air.

I love living in Tacoma, but I don’t love relying on 1990 level service in the year 2014. I can’t vote yes on April 22nd, but you can. Learn a lesson from Pierce County, and send a mandate that we all want more transit. Not less.

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