A call to support public transportation’s growth

Intercity Transit heads into its annual fall strategic planning session with a new general manager and a recent performance report showing total ridership has reached an all-time high in its 32-year history. Passenger fares from increased ridership increased 8.4 percent from the prior year and remain on an upward trend this year.

Thanks to solid public support in Thurston County, the agency has managed to grow moderately during a difficult economic period, while similar transit authorities in neighboring counties have declined. For example, Intercity Transit expanded its express bus and vanpool services to replace cuts made by Pierce Transit along the crucial Interstate 5 commuter corridor.

On the surface, it appears the future looks rosy for Intercity Transit, named two years ago as the best mid-sized transit agency in North America.

But all is not well.

Intercity Transit’s success and growth in its fleet of buses and vanpool and vehicles is driving an urgent need to expand its headquarter facility. It’s not just a question of space. The site also has several 30-year-old underground fuel storage tanks that should be replaced.

The agency had a capital funding plan to update its transit infrastructure, of course, until it ran into the buzzsaw of austerity measures enacted by Congress late last year. The 2012 transportation bill – called the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act – slashed more than $16 billion in spending, inexplicably including the elimination of funding for local public transit capital improvements.

Having relied on federal funds for 80 percent of its capital projects, Intercity Transit now faces the conundrum of managing its growth and an aging infrastructure without a secure capital funding plan.

The inability of the state Legislature to agree on a transportation revenue package this year only added to Intercity Transit’s concerns. Since 1999, the state has reduced funding to local transit authorities from 22 percent to 2 percent.

It’s a good sign, however, that new General Manager Ann Freeman-Manzanares says the agency is regrouping and is confident this October’s updated strategic plan can balance capital needs with keeping service on the streets.

The agency did receive some regional mobility grants from the state and related federal funds this year to double express service to Tacoma on the I-5 corridor, which helps to reduce congestion around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

And Intercity Transit enjoys strong South Sound public support. Local voters approved a 0.2 percent increase in sales tax revenue in 2010 that has helped the agency avoid service cuts. The transit authority derives about 63 percent of its revenue from sales taxes.

Aside from its capital funding challenges, Intercity Transit remains a healthy organization vital to the development of the South Sound, and consistent with local values.

As Intercity Transit Authority’s board chair Marty Thies says, “All this (growth) indicates the culture is changing as people discover that getting out of their cars to walk, bus, bike or share the ride costs less, helps to define a healthy community and reduces their impact on the environment.”

But those goals require facilities that support, not detract, from its growth.

We urge both the state and federal governments to rethink their transportation measures to include greater support for public transit, particularly in providing additional capital funds to replace eroding infrastructure.