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Pierce Transit’s all-or-nothing approach is flawed

Post by Kim Bradford on June 22, 2010 at 8:37 pm |
June 22, 2010 8:37 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Pierce Transit is in a bind – one partly of its own making.

The agency has heard from riders who won’t be able to get to work or to doctor’s appointments if bus service takes the brunt of a recessionary beating.

It has heard from small cities threatening to walk if service to outlying areas is sacrificed to preserve urban routes and frequency. It has heard from taxpayers who balk at paying more to support Pierce Transit in the manner to which it had become accustomed.

Now the agency’s board of commissioners must decide: Does Pierce Transit go hat in hand to voters or does it resize the agency to make do?

The options, as portrayed to the public, are stark: A 50 percent increase in Pierce Transit’s sales tax or a 43 percent reduction of service. Some choice.

Some false choice, to be more blunt.

The all-or-nothing approach is curious, given that Pierce Transit is big on strategic planning and nimble thinking – so big, the agency has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to hire consultants and launch initiatives aimed at promoting such practices.

It’s a shame that Pierce Transit officials’ public response to their biggest crisis doesn’t bear more evidence of those efforts. There is a vast middle ground that the agency has shown little interest in exploring.

Take its plug for exercising its full taxing authority by adding 0.3 percent to its existing 0.6 percent sales tax. Pierce Transit says that’s the bare minimum needed to restore the agency’s budget to its pre-recession strength and make meager service improvements.

But what happens when the economy rebounds and Pierce Transit is again awash with sales tax revenues growing at the old rate of 6 percent a year? Voters would have essentially given the agency a green light to return to business as usual, lifting any pressure to rein in generous pay and benefits and trim administrative expenses.

The agency should be considering asking voters for a temporary tax increase – or even a lesser permanent one – but it’s not.

Transit officials say neither option would meet their needs: A temporary infusion couldn’t be used to win federal dollars for needed projects, and anything less than the full 0.3 percent would not stave off service cuts.

Perhaps such options don’t suit Pierce Transit’s vision of erasing the effects of the recession, but they would be a better fit for taxpayers’ wallets. Pierce Transit might even emerge from the ordeal a leaner, more efficient operation.

The agency is framing the decision in a simple way: The public either accepts higher taxes during the worst economy since the Great Depression or its transit services get gutted.

Simple, but not honest. It smacks of an agency that doesn’t want a painful economic crisis to go to waste.

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