This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
At the heart of Proposition 1 – the transit measure on the Pierce County ballot – is a question: What kind of community do we want?
Prop 1 would impose a 0.3 percent sale tax increase (3 cents on a $10 purchase) within the transit district, which encompasses most of the county’s urban areas. The revenues would keep the system from rolling off a cliff with many of the county’s neediest citizens on board.
Most of Pierce Transit’s income comes from the 0.6 percent sales tax it already collects. But sales tax revenues continue to falter as economic recovery eludes the South Sound. At the same time, a recent downsizing of the transit district’s boundaries will cost the agency another $8 million a year.
Pierce Transit has already cut its bus and paratransit runs by roughly 40 percent. Without additional revenue, it expects to cut what remains by a crippling 53 percent.
Those aren’t just numbers on a page – they are human beings who depend on the bus to get to jobs, stores, school and doctor appointments.
Many don’t have any reliable alternative. The agency’s surveys indicate that 56 percent of its riders have household incomes of less than $20,000; they include the poorest of the poor. Close to half – 45 percent – do not have working vehicles.
Many have grave disabilities and depend on specially equipped paratransit vans. Paratransit service only extends along existing bus routes; when a route disappears, so do the vans.
Altruism isn’t the only reason to support a healthy transit system.
The 55 percent of riders who do have cars might otherwise be on the road, contributing to congestion.
And while Pierce Transit subsists largely on tax money, it also helps drive the South Sound economy. Roughly a quarter of its riders use the bus to connect to employment; many companies depend on transit to get their employees to work. A fifth of all riders get to school or college by bus.
Others use transit to shop and get to appointments. Most riders use the buses to earn money, spend money or prepare themselves for jobs. The region’s economy needs transit.
We opposed this tax the last time it was on the ballot, in February 2011. Our concern was that Pierce Transit had been lax in controlling its costs.
Things have changed. The agency has gone to considerable lengths to wring excess out of its operations. One indicator is its new contract with the bus drivers’ union, which provides for no new salary increases. Employees will also be paying more for their generous health care benefits.
Admittedly, many of them will still be compensated very, very well as a consequence of past contracts.
But those contracts weren’t negotiated by the riders who need the buses. The citizens of Pierce County are being asked if they believe that only those who can afford cars and are able to drive deserve transportation, one of life’s fundamentals. We hope the answer is no.