Monday, July 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

Transit failure unlikely to open streetcar discussion

The failure of the Pierce Transit sales tax hike outlined by Proposition 1 by less than a single percentage vote earlier this month means the cash-strapped bus agency is now working on the specifics of how to downsize to meet its projected budget. There is also no plan afoot to place a similar package before the voters anytime soon. “There was no discussion about going to the voters again in 2013,” said Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, chair of the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners. Those discussions could come at the board’s December meeting, but the agency is now working on what bus routes to end or cut back and when to make those changes through a series of cuts starting early next year. It will also look at backing legislative changes that could allow for other revenue models for bus services that could include wider tax authority or state funding at a time when it faces reducing service to levels it had in the 1980s. “This is going to be in phases,” Strickland said. “It is not like we are going to cut services after the first of the year.” Even if another transit package gets discussed, Fife City Councilmember and Commissioner Glenn Hull will not back it.

“I can tell you right now that I won’t support it,” he said. “Two times was enough.” What is also in the works are talks between suburban cities about finding ways to fund commuter-only services from their cities to job centers in the region rather than funding a full slate of bus routes during work days that are not generally used by residents of the area because they are at work. Other cities could even see the reduced bus routes and opt out entirely, which could shrink the transit district again. “I fear that there just aren’t going to be enough hours to go around,” Hull said, noting that Fife generates about $4 million a year in sales taxes for the transit agency and only will likely have a single route down Pacific Highway under the reduced schedule. The timeline of cuts is a touchy subject since the federal grants that flow to the agency require public hearings and outreach programs toward low-income and minority groups since those folks are going to be the most affected by the route cuts that will translate to an agency that will provide about half of its current bus services.

“Assuming no new funding is secured, Pierce Transit must implement our reductions by spring 2014,” transit spokesman Lars Erickson said. “The Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners will have a special work session in December to consider the timing of the reductions. There will be many opportunities for the public to learn about the plans and make comments before they are finalized and officially adopted by the Board. That would likely happen in the first half of 2013.” Leading up to the failed ballot measure to increase the sales tax from .6 percent to .9 percent to fund bus and transit programs, Pierce Transit saw a year of declining revenues and a shrinking of its boundaries when a handful of Pierce County cities opted out this summer. That call for more money came only after Pierce Transit cut nearly $111 million from its budget since 2008 by cutting special event services, selling surplus properties and eliminating one out of every five positions. Pierce Transit depends on sales tax revenues for 71 percent of its operations, so with four years of declining sales tax, Pierce Transit will have to cut service by 53 percent.

As Pierce Transit cuts bus routes, others see the ballot defeat as an opportunity to restart public discussions about a streetcar system around Tacoma. One of those streetcar backers is Tacoma attorney Eric Bjornson. He led an effort two years ago to put a streetcar measure to local voters that was turned down because the city did not have a Transportation Benefit District required to fund the project. But now it does. Tacoma City Council is moving forward with a TBD to charge $20 on car tabs as a way to raise $3.4 million every two years to fund road repairs as a way to chip away at its $800 million of needed improvements. “Now is the opportunity to step back from two back-to-back failures and finally take streetcar extension seriously,” Bjornson said. “Sound Transit has been collecting tax from Tacomans since 2008 for matching funds for streetcar/LINK extension with nothing to show for it. Even after the Pierce Transit measure failed, twice, even when they were able to literally choose the people who would vote on the matter with 10 times the campaign of the anti folks it still failed. What might pass is a Tacoma measure.

However, that would require Pierce Transit to shrink to the size of Tacoma or for Tacoma to pick up the tab and backfill Pierce Transit.” Money from Tacoma’s TBD is already earmarked for street repairs, however, and is far less than what would be needed to fund a streetcar system. Its borders only cover the city of Tacoma, so mingling transit dollars and TBD revenues would be extremely complicated. “I don’t want to blend the conversations,” Strickland said, noting that the transit board’s efforts now are focused on ways to cut bus routes and services that balance the agency’s budget with the least impact to the thousands of low-income and disabled riders who depend on it for their only way to get to work or medical treatments, while knowing full well those impacts will likely be dramatic. “That is the heartbreaking part of it.”