Future Uncertain

// Pierce Transit opts to delay cuts

What a difference a month makes when it comes to keeping buses rolling around Pierce County neighborhoods.

Pierce Transit’s Board of Commissioners held a special meeting last week to rescind a slate of cuts it had approved in June. The cuts were set to start in September, but a unanimous vote changed that after the commissioners credited the improving economy for providing enough sales tax revenue to delay those cuts. The transit board also opted to hold a special meeting to make the decision rather than wait two weeks for the regular meeting, because bus drivers were retiring or finding other work – ahead of the layoffs – to the point that it was affecting service.

“We have had that problem for the last four years,” spokeswoman Carol Mitchell said. “It didn’t look like we were going to have to lay off many people at all because they were already gone.”

Layoff notices had been sent to 84 full- and part-time drivers, for example, while some 37 people left the agency before those cuts. Transit officials couldn’t hire new drivers to fill empty positions in the driver pool because any new hire would be the first to be laid off because of the seniority agreement with the unionized workers.

The vote canceled the 28 percent service reduction plan that would have taken effect on Sept. 29. The plan would have meant the loss of entire routes, fewer trips for others and the end of weekend bus service.

The service reduction plan was based on a 1 percent growth in sales tax revenue and would have reduced bus service hours from 417,000 hours to 300,000 hours. Those services are saved, for now. The projected level of service will be about 392,000 hours through 2014. The road ahead for those cuts is unclear since the sales tax revenue will have to improve at a rate of about 8 percent through next year to avoid cuts during the next budget. The economy has improved about 9.6 percent in recent months.

“It is a little bit of a risk,” Mitchell said. “It’s a delay, I want to emphasize that.”

While Pierce Transit provides about 392,000 hours of bus service, the agency will likely have to cut between 40,000 and 50,000 hours from the 2015 budget since sales tax collections are likely to fail to keep up with expenses at the current service level. For comparison, busses ran about 625,000 hours during the highest year of service five years ago.

“Lost in a lot of the conversation is that we are a much smaller agency than we were when all of this started,” Mitchell said.

Pierce Transit has cut its service levels during every budget since 2008. Several communities, namely Sumner, Bonney Lake, DuPont and several patches of unincorporated Pierce County opted out of being in the Pierce Transit boundaries altogether during last year’s round of cuts took effect.

The vote to rescind the planned cuts keeps buses rolling and allows the agency to stem the flow of drivers bleeding out of the agency and even hire new drivers to replace those who have already left. The decision also buys transit staff some time to evaluate sales tax projections from the shrunken district, complete a revised service plan and lobby for legislative solutions to the problem of having 75 percent of the agency’s budget flow from the highly volatile sales tax revenue.

Sales taxes are collected by businesses within the transit boundaries, an area that is now smaller than it was last year. The money flows to the state and then back to the agency in a meandering two-month process. That lag, coupled with the lack of a clear year-over-year comparison because of the smaller district and the wide swings in local retail spending volumes as the economy sputters to recover from the Great Recession, makes crystal-balling future routes challenging for commissioners. The latest economic forecast from the state was not available when the now-rescinded cuts were approved in June.

“The board’s action gives the agency time to see how sales tax will perform for the balance of 2013, time to complete its 2014 budget process this fall, time to integrate the board’s recently-adopted strategic plan and return next year with a revised service plan based on a more complete financial picture,” said Pierce Transit CEO Lynne Griffith.

Commissioners opted to rescind all the cuts rather than only keep some of the routes and save money to cushion next year’s cuts under the idea that the agency’s primary mission is to provide as many transit services as possible. The vote came with full knowledge that the public would be suspicious of future bond measures. Threats of deep cuts were used heavily to campaign for last year’s sales tax increase that failed to sway voters. Now those “dooms-day” cuts are not coming at all.

“Credibility is just as important as putting buses on the streets,” said Transit Commissioner and Fife City Council member Glen Hull. “The public doesn’t trust us, not just Pierce Transit, but all government.”

The on-and-off service cuts and the emotional yo-yo avid transit riders endured hasn’t helped build that trust or chart a future of gaining that trust.

What is clear is that transit services are set to continue “as is” for another year and changes are in the works after then. Part of that change will come from Community Investment Teams of smaller cities and neighborhoods tasked with developing more specific transit plans. Gig Harbor started the first effort last month when it rolled out a trolley that linked the downtown waterfront district to the uptown shopping district located on the other side of State Route 16.

Fife, Milton, Puyallup, Edgewood and the Puyallup Tribe have created a group, as well. The group will look at community-tailored solutions that may include circular routes between them or route timing changes.

“These are expensive services,” Hull said.

Options could also mean cutting down on the number of stops routes have in an effort to shorten transit times. Hub-to-hub express routes often have more riders than those with more stops.

“The dynamics of public transit is changing,” Hull said. “That is exactly what people want, fewer stops, faster times.”

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