By Andrew Austin
Three years ago, around the time I started at Transportation Choices, I was sitting around a coffee table with transit advocates like Chris Karnes of Tacoma Tomorrow discussing the future of transit service in Pierce County. The recession was in full swing, and it was becoming clear that Pierce Transit, like nearly every other transit agency in the state, would need to secure new revenue or face drastic cuts in the years ahead. Fast forward a few months, Pierce Transit was in the midst of their redesign process and discussing ballot possibilities for securing the rest of the their state allowed sales tax (they are at .6% and the state allows up to .9%). Polling that showed public support for a sales tax measure in Pierce Transit's expansive taxing district was at a miserable 42%. Despite behind the scenes pleading on the part of transit advocates, it was deemed politically infeasible to shrink the taxing district before going to the ballot.
Pierce Transit's taxing district grew time and time again during the 80s and 90s in order to capture MVET revenue and serve rapidly growing exurban areas (thanks to bad land-use decisions at the county over the past two decades). As a result the taxing district was massive. It included rural areas like the Key Peninsula and Orting, that are impossible to serve transit in a cost effective manner. When the Feb. 2011 ballot was in front of voters, some voters hadn't seen bus service in over five years, yet were still paying sales taxes for transit. Despite a rigorous campaign effort, we were unsuccessful at the ballot. The City of Tacoma overwhelmingly voted for the tax measure, the close in suburban cities were 50-50, and the rural and exurban areas like Bonney Lake voted against it by over 70% in some places. Chris at Tacoma Transit has a great analysis breaking down the election results of the Feb. ballot measure. The short story is, the far out exurban and rural areas have never supported transit taxes, but have grown faster than the urban areas of Pierce County in the last 10 years, and that is why we won 10 years ago but not in 2011.
None of this is rocket science. It is extremely expensive to provide fixed-route bus service to sprawling car-centric areas. In those sprawling communities, they don't see the value of bus service (or don't even have any service) and have more conservative anti-tax voters than urban areas like Tacoma. As a result, they came out swinging against save our buses, and we lost.
As a result, bus service in Tacoma, Puyallup, and across Pierce County is unacceptable. Most routes stop running at 8pm on weekdays and 6pm on weekends. Many areas have inconvenient and infrequent service and riders are suffering. Service has been reduced by 42% in the last four years, thousands of riders have been lost, and hundreds of bus drivers earning a good family wage got laid off.
Last spring, with the support of Futurewise and Transportation for Washington Campaign, we launched a large-scale grassroots effort after the ballot failure to push Pierce Transit to adopt efficiency based cuts. The original Pierce Transit cuts plan tried to spread their cuts across the system like peanut butter, decimating their ridership and maintaining service in low-ridership areas that voted strongly against paying more for transit. We turned out hundreds of riders and advocates with the simple message, adopt a cuts plan that keeps the maximum numbers of riders on system and doesn't disproportionally hurt communities of color and low income neighborhoods (which the peanut butter plan did). Thanks to hundreds of angry riders, support from groups like Downtown on the Go, agency staff/leadership flexibility, and the leadership of people like Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Councilmember Jake Fey, the Pierce Transit board adopted a cuts plan last Spring that while still painful, was efficiency based, maintained core service in urban areas, and kept over a million riders per year on the bus system.
All of this is just interesting history that leads us to where we are today; a bus system in Pierce County that has cut 42% of its service since its peak four years ago and as ATU President Don McKnight put it last night, is a smaller system than Pierce Transit ran 30 years ago. Evening and weekend service is miserable, frequencies are greatly reduced, and coverage in many core areas is sub-par to say the least. For me, this means I can't catch the bus home from my favorite bar after 8pm at night, but for many, they can no longer get home from their job at 10pm or get to the doctor on Sunday. Nobody is happy with the current state of transit in Pierce County.
Now the good news. Last night was a huge step forward that was three years in the making. The Public Improvement Transportation Conference (which is separate from the agency), under the leadership of Gig Harbor Councilmember Derek Young, unanimously approved a map that radically alters the taxing boundary lines for Pierce Transit. At the hearing a broad swath of community leaders and bus riders testified in favor of the new district. This move is a win-win. It aligns Pierce Transit's service area to places that can reasonably be served by fixed route bus service. It reduces the tax burden on communities like Bonney Lake who were not getting their money's worth in service. It also allows those communities to come up with local solutions at a lower tax rate and possibly contract bus or van service for specific transit needs. Last but not least, it sets transit in Pierce County on a path for success in the near and long-term future.
We have hit the rock bottom of bus service in Pierce County. Under the current map, communities that are willing to pay a little more to restore thousands of hours of bus service will be able to do just that. The fate is now in our hands. As of today, we have the opportunity to restore bus service to the thousands of people who need it to get to work, visit family, or go to the doctor every single day. As County Councilmember Talbert put it last night, whether or not people use transit, we all benefit from it. Once this map is finalized by the County, the future of transit service will be in the hands of the communities that want and need it the most. We will go back to the ballot and we will win; because as a community, we can't afford not to.