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Voters rejecting Pierce Transit sales tax hike

Post by Kris Sherman / The News Tribune on Feb. 8, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
February 8, 2011 8:22 pm

Pierce County voters were snubbing a request for a sales tax increase to help fund bus service. preliminary returns in today’s election show.

Pierce Transit’s Proposition 1 is failing, 54 percent no to 45 percent yes, according to returns just posted on the Pierce County Auditor’s Elections web site.

Just under 122,000 ballots have been tabulated. That’s close to a third of the 375,850 eligible registered voters.

More votes will be counted in the coming days, but it appeared there was no chance of passage.

Pierce Transit wanted a three-tenths of 1 percent increase in the local sales tax to shore up finances left sagging heavily by the recession. It would raised an estimated $30 million a year for the public agency, which served some 18 million riders on its local and Sound Transit routes in 2009.

It would be a 50 percent increase. Pierce County residents now pay a .06 percent sales tax to the transit agency.

Without the additional money, the agency says it must slash bus service by some 35 percent by mid-2012. Cuts likely will begin in June.

The Pierce Transit board hasn’t approved the cuts, but it has a daylong study session set Feb. 28 to talk about what’s next. Materials rolled out by the agency in advance of the election said cuts would begin by this summer.

Overall, Pierce Transit’s proposed “reduction plan” calls for the slashing of 217,000 hours of annual service within a year.

The likely future: Passengers will have to wait longer for buses on heavily traveled routes; coaches will come and go even less frequently to and from outlying areas; and some routes will be cut altogether. In addition, bus service will begin later on some routes; weekend service will be cut by 50 percent. Special service to events like the Fourth of July Freedom Fair and the Puyallup Fair will be cut out completely.

If the measure fails and such cuts are approved by the board, some 220 of the agency’s roughly 1,000 employees would be laid off.

Pierce Transit serves a 414-square-mile area across the county, with routes that also run north to Auburn and Seattle and south to Olympia.

Proposition 1 supporters argued it should be looked at another way three cents on a $10 purchase. You now pay six cents on a $10 purchase for to subsidize bus service. That would go up to nine cents if Proposition 1 passed.

Public transit, they said, is one of the threads running through the fabric of a liveable community. It’s a for-the-good-of-all service that allows the poor, the young, the elderly, the handicapped to move around, and it gets commuters to and from work and pulls cars off congested roads, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said during the campaign.

Opponents complained people are tax-weary and a recession is the worst possible time to raise sales tax. They complained the agency itself was poorly managed and top heavy and that it should better manage itself before asking voters’ trust of more money.

Agency officials answered that they saw the recession coming and reacted to it faster than other governmental bodies, raising fares, making service adjustments and trimming the budget. They’ve made some $89 million in cuts and efficiencies since the fall of 2008, CEO Lynne Griffith said during the campaign.

Pierce Transit received $63.3 million in sales tax revenues in 2009, a figure down nearly 12 percent from the $71.7 million it collected in 2008 and 18 percent from the $77.1 million it took in during 2007, budget figures show.

The tax last was raised in 2002 after voters approved a three-tenths of 1 percent increase to supplant money lost when the vehicle license fee went away. That doubled the percentage the agency collected – from .03 to .06 on a dollar.

Local sales tax collections of around $64 million accounted for about 53 percent of the agency’s $121 million operating budget last year. If you exclude the money Pierce Transit gets for carrying some three million Sound Transit riders a year, sales tax pays for roughly 70 percent of the local service, agency officials say.

Fares from $1,50 to $2 for adults – a 33 percent hike – since 2009, account for only about 17 percent of that budget, the agency says.

But they still pay only a portion of the true cost of a bus ride, which the agency said was an average of about $4.75 on a fixed route in 2009.

Shuttle service for handicapped passengers cost an average of $38 per passenger trip.

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