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Ballot-shy Pierce Transit risks vicious cycle of cuts

Post by Kim Bradford on May 23, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
May 23, 2011 5:48 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Pierce Transit is again courting rebellion in East Pierce County.

The agency’s proposal to drop service to Bonney Lake, Sumner, Buckley and Orting would help preserve service on urban routes with the most ridership.

But the cuts also have revived talk about seceding from the taxing district, a move that would further cripple the agency’s ability to provide a crucial service.

Officials in outlying Pierce County communities first discussed withdrawing from Pierce Transit last year as the agency came to terms with the recession’s blow to a system built on the assumption of 6 percent annual income growth.

At that time, the agency successfully held off threats of succession with a plan to prop up its shaky finances with a fat tax increase. But in February, voters shot down the agency’s request for a 50 percent hike in its sales tax rate.

Pierce Transit should have returned to the ballot with a more disciplined plan tied to a smaller tax request. Instead, it has continued to frame its plight in stark terms. Thirty-five percent of the transit system is going under the ax because the agency couldn’t max out its taxing authority.

A good share of the cut will likely happen in the outlying areas because the transit board decided earlier this month to focus on less productive routes rather than further trim service systemwide.

East Pierce County officials’ message to the board: Don’t expect to continue collecting taxes from our communities if your buses stop coming.

Bonney Lake, Sumner, Orting and Buckley would take $4.6 million in annual tax revenue with them if they left the transit district. That’s not a huge chunk – about 4 percent of Pierce Transit’s operating budget – but it might mean additional reductions in service.

Each cut makes the agency less relevant, erodes public support and jeopardizes the ability of people to get to work, doctors appointments and stores.

De-annexation by cities would create a county of transit haves and have-nots. Pierce County, land of suburban sprawl, cannot afford the social costs or traffic congestion that result from abandoning a swath of bedroom communities.

Forty-six percent of voters who cast ballots in February’s election were willing to pay a high price for maintaining transit services countywide. How many more would be willing to approve a smaller tax if it were paired with a plan to deliver services at less cost?

The Pierce Transit board will never know until it asks.

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