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Transportation Choices Coalition: No, Transit Does Not Get Too Much Money

By Erica Barnett
Publicola
Publicola covers our retort to Washington Policy Center's false claims about transit funding.

The Transportation Choices Coalition issued a point-by-point response today to an incendiary report by the conservative Washington Policy Center that claimed Washington State spends a “remarkable” amount of money on transit.

The WPC report, titled “Public Transit Is Not Underfunded in Washington,” claims that transit agencies across Washington collected as much in taxes last year as the state did for all transportation purposes; that transit carries only a tiny fraction, 2.4 percent, of trips statewide; that sales taxes aren’t volatile at all and have grown 150 percent in the last 10 years; and that ridership has dropped as operating costs have increased.

Of the four claims, TCC says, only the last one is (partly) true: Ridership has indeed dropped, as the recession has put people out of work. No job: No commute. And costs have increased as gas prices have gone up—paralleling the cost of the WPC’s preferred mode of transportation, driving.

But the other claims, TCC says, are either wildly misleading or simply false.

First, the approximately $2 billion the state’s 31 transit agencies collect (mostly in sales tax) is a mere fraction of the more than $9 billion the state spends on its transportation budget. “Ennis is cherry picking just state gas tax and fees to make his number, while comparing it to the totality of all sources of revenue for transit including federal, local and all other sources.”

Second, TCC says, the WPC’s “only 2.4 percent of all trips” claim is extrapolated from the number of trips taken by transit locally and the number of total trips the “average” American household takes. The “average” US household, of course, takes far more trips by car than the average household in a large, urbanized area like Seattle; in fact, 40 percent of people who commute to downtown Seattle ride the bus.

Finally, sales tax is volatile—just ask any of the regional transit agencies, like Community Transit (or Federal Way) that have had to reduce or postpone service because of shortfalls in sales-tax revenues. Between 2008 and 2010, local sales tax collections dropped 11.6 percent statewide. Moreover, WPC’s report ignores the fact that the value of money decreases over time, comparing 2001 dollars directly to 2010 dollars and ignoring the existence of inflation.

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