Wednesday, June 28, 2017 This Week's Paper

Transit cuts won’t be as deep as expected

// People movers under review on all fronts as Pierce Transit ponders cuts and Sound Transit looks at Link light rail expansion routes.

The latest news from Pierce Transit regarding planned cuts to bus service around the county is a matter of perspective. The cuts will be deep, but not as deep as first projected. And the planned cuts on the current roster could find themselves saved if the economy continues to improve faster than first thought.

Pierce Transit officials first announced plans to cut about half of the bus services by late 2013 after voters failed to approve a sales tax measure in November to keep those wheels rolling. In the latest projections of the cuts, only about a third of those bus services will end.

Once the ballot measure was officially voted down, bus drivers with less seniority began to seek jobs elsewhere rather than face layoffs from the cuts. Those departures saved Pierce Transit from severance packages. Joining those savings is higher than expected sales taxes and union wage concessions that translates to less drastic cuts, although the end of weekend buses is all but certain.

“I would also point out that 34 percent is still a large cut to service. This will have an impact on everyone who uses the system,” said Pierce Transit spokesman Lars Erickson, noting that there is some hope. “Our commitment is to put every dollar available into service, whether that is due to finding efficiencies or improved economic conditions.”

But even with the better than expected sales tax revenue and concessions, money isn’t just flowing into the transit agency. Sales tax revenue is still below rates seen before the “Great Recession” first started in late 2007. October’s sales tax revenues show $5.2 million was collected, which is $1 million less than during the same month in 2007.

That means that whatever the scenario, bus riders should expect weekend service to return soon once the transit agency shifts to a five-day schedule this fall. Any weekend service would have to come at the cost of weekday service that will already be hard hit by cuts.

“Our service planners considered basic service options for limited weekend access to buses,” Erickson said. “Any potential weekend service would require pulling hours from weekday service, leaving gaps that impact even more riders. Currently, we operate a total of 417,000 annual service hours, of which 344,000 hours are weekday service. After reductions are implemented on Jan. 22, we will be down to 275,000 annual service hours in total. So that means we are impacting weekday levels alone by 69,000 hours.”

Linked to that discussion, by topic at least, is the ongoing review of expansion efforts of the Tacoma Link light rail system by Sound Transit.

The current roster of options lists a half dozen possible alternatives, which officials hope will be cut down later this year to allow for more detailed study. The issue was a topic of the Tacoma City Council study session.

Earlier open houses ballooned an initial list to 24 possible routes, although only six of those basic routes passed the initial review. Options range from running rail from the North End to downtown, along Hilltop’s emerging “Medical Mile,” through the East Side, or to Tacoma Community College’s campus on Mildred street or along Pacific Highway to Fife and the Puyallup Tribe’s commercial center. The idea now is to gauge potential rider information as well as ponder what economic impact the various routes would have. The current 1.6-mile Tacoma Link light rail line currently serves six stations from the Theater District to the Tacoma Dome Station. Trains run every 12 minutes during the day and served nearly a million riders last year. Voters in 2008 approved an expansion of Tacoma Link as part of the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure. Sound Transit's Tacoma Link Expansion Alternatives Analysis project will identify and study alternative travel corridors for expansion of the system.

This round of screening the routes will run through spring, after which the Sound Transit board will select the route Officials will then research detailed costs and timelines. Sound Transit has committed about $100 million to the expansion, so more funding sources will be needed once a preferred route is selected since the route estimates run between about $100 million to more than $160 million.