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Come back, Pierce Transit, with a tighter Plan B

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 19, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
January 19, 2011 5:46 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

As they’re eyeing the sales tax increase Pierce Transit wants them to approve on Feb. 8, voters should understand that this is not a last-chance proposition.

The measure’s supporters say its failure would result in a devastating 35 percent cut in bus and van service. Maybe, maybe not.

The fact is, Pierce Transit has enough cash in reserve to buy the time it needs to return to the ballot with a more realistic proposal. We think the voters ought to wait for a less expensive Plan B – and Pierce Transit ought to give them one.

Let’s acknowledge up front that mass transit is an essential public service. It gets people with disabilities or low income to jobs, doctors’ offices and stores. When people of higher income take buses instead of driving their own cars, transit takes traffic off the road and keeps pollution out of the air.

Those who believe that transit has a paramount claim on the available sales tax – in a dire economic climate – ought to vote for Proposition 1.

In our view, Pierce Transit has not yet fully grasped the fact that this downsized economy demands doing more with less.

Its board and administrators are asking for a 0.3 percent addition to the 0.6 percent sales tax it already collects in Pierce County, which would translate into a $30 million-a-year, 50 percent increase in revenue. That would max out its potential taxing authority; the idea is to offset the decline in sales tax revenue it has suffered since the recession began in late 2007.

Pierce Transit in effect is asking taxpayers to largely insulate it against the harsh economic realities that are forcing other organizations to ruthlessly cut expenses and reinvent themselves in order to survive.

The agency has imposed some economies on itself, including a substantial squeezing of its administrative costs. But its employee compensation packages – by far the largest part of its budget – bear no relationship to reality. Its standard health plan falls into the “Cadillac” category, and most of its workers have enjoyed generous pay increases right on through the worst economy in 60 years.

Pierce Transit’s leaders have found it hard to say no to the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents most of the agency’s employees. The ATU found it easy last year to refuse requests that it voluntarily forgo the 4 percent annual pay increase provided under its multi-year contract.

Employee compensation constitutes a huge part of Pierce Transit’s fiscal stewardship, and neither the administration nor the union has responded adequately to the financial crisis.

It is telling that the agency wants to claim every penny available to it. A 0.1 or conceivably even a 0.2 percent sales tax increase might have been justified if it came with persuasive guarantees of tighter performance in the future. But this is the worst possible time for a public agency to look grabby; it doesn’t portend well for its future discipline.

Mass transit is essential – so essential that as much ridership as possible should be squeezed from every public dollar. We don’t think Pierce Transit is there yet. Let’s see Plan B.

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