Pierce Transit must regroup, rethink after Prop. 1 defeat

The News TribuneNovember 18, 2012 

Now that voters have rejected a permanent sales tax increase for Pierce Transit, what’s Plan B?

In the runup to the Nov. 6 election, the agency said that if Proposition 1 failed, it would have to cut weekend and evening service (after 7 p.m.) – on top of cuts that already have been made. From early spring 2014 to 2017, service hours would be cut from 419,000 to 197,000. Shuttle service for the elderly and disabled, which has been reduced significantly already, would be cut back even more.

The agency must revisit that Doomsday scenario. If Pierce Transit winds up squeezing its runs that radically, its usefulness as a regional transit agency will be radically diminished.

Many people depend on need bus and shuttles to get to work, school, stores and medical appointments. The need doesn’t always conform to weekday hours. Low-income workers, in particular, rely on buses in the evening and on weekends; many of them juggle multiple part-time jobs and have no other way to get around. For the elderly and many with physical impairments, shuttle service is an essential lifeline to the outside world.

If the economy bounces back strongly, providing more revenue for Pierce Transit’s existing .6 percent sales tax, the agency should be able to avert Doomsday. The estimated cutbacks were based on a very slow economic recovery; so far, the recovery has been outpacing the assumptions.

Without an expanded sales tax, some cutbacks are probably inevitable. Pierce Transit’s management and board again face hard choices in the coming months. Everything must be on the table, including further service area contraction and another attempt at a sales tax increase.

Whoa, you might be thinking. Voters just nixed that; why even consider another it?

But it was a very narrow defeat. The electorate came close to approving the largest tax increase Pierce Transit could have put on the ballot – a .3 percent sales tax increment that would put the total sales tax bill in Tacoma and parts of Pierce County among the highest on the West Coast. Car dealerships would have been particularly affected.

And it would have been a permanent tax increase.

Too many voters were uncomfortable with that combination. They feared that, once the economy improved and Pierce Transit had the .3 percent locked in place, the agency’s recent cost-control measures would fall by the wayside. Union members who had agreed to wage freezes and paying more for their health care might again seek compensation packages that look overly generous to the folks paying for them.

The board should consider a smaller tax increase – with a sunset clause to hold itself accountable for future fiscal stewardship. The agency would then be motivated to continue controlling costs and – much like fire and school districts – periodically make the case to voters that their money was being used wisely.

Today, rightly or not, a majority of voters don’t think that’s happening. And on Nov. 6, they made it clear that they weren’t about to give what amounts to a blank check with no expiration date.

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