"Growth" Alternative (Pierce Transit)

In many ways Pierce Transit is facing the worst budget situation of all the State’s large systems. As soon as the reserves run out in about 2012, cuts would be 43% of all service.

However, in another way PT is much better off than Metro and Community Transit, because they don’t have to go to the legislature to get more funding. Yesterday, the Pierce Transit board took advantage of that by unanimously sending a measure to the ballot that would raise their sales tax take from 0.6% to 0.9%, the maximum allowed by state law. The tax only applies in the Public Transit Benefit Area (PTBA),  which includes most incorporated areas in the county.

Evan Siroky at Tacoma Tomorrow suggests that a 0.9% taxation level supports not just current service, but actually more or less the “growth alternative” that amounts to a 5% increase, actually eliminating a few routes in favor of increasing frequency throughout the system:

Alternatives Comparison (PT, via Tacoma Tomorrow)

More details on the new plan will be at this website on Friday. The vote itself would be February 8, 2011, unfortunately a low-turnout election and not the young electorate likely to vote strongly for transit.

24 Replies to “Pierce Transit Goes to the Ballot”

  1. I would really like to hear from the economics out there (Tony?) why ‘Scale of Economy’ doesn’t seem to work out for Transit.
    Look back 20 or 30 years, and 3/10th or less sales tax supported very robust transit operations in the larger cities around the state. As cost for fuel, wages, and buses grew with inflation it follows that sales tax receipts grew proportionately, keeping things in balance.
    As service is added, transit should benefit from larger, more efficient operations. That’s pretty much how other transportation related operations work. FexEx gets more productive, not less, so does BNSF and SW Airlines as they grow. Not so in Transit.
    But transit is now tapped out at 9/10th (supposedly triple the income from the 70’s and 80’s), but certainly not triple the service.
    Even if Pierce gets the raise, and I hope they do, given the recession has depressed incomes, it barely holds the line on service cuts.
    This isn’t a back-hand to transit, just a question, as the current model seems un-sustainable until the mechanics of income/expense are really understood.

      1. economists. I’m lost without a spell checker and a chance to edit. Sorry!

      2. I’m not an economist, but a couple more thoughts: I’m not sure that transit in the 1970s was all that robust. It certainly wasn’t in the suburbs. Also I think transit has not been able to make the system investments that allowed BNSF and FedEx to leverage their scale. UPS is famously one of the largest software companies in the world–that goes to developing the most efficient routing for packages and trucks which saves fuel and labor costs. Transit has stuck to more or less the same routes since the early 1900s, and I haven’t heard of any transit agency hiring army of software developers and GIS experts to hack away on job and population trends and tweaking routes.

      3. I wouldn’t describe far flung routes with dismal ridership as “robust”. It’s more like the entire herd staving to death because there’s to little grazing. Unfortunately our transit executives can’t cull the weakest routes. The reason a company like UPS can run efficiently is because the board of directors hires a CEO and then expects them to perform. Politicians hire transit General Managers and expect them to implement their pet projects.

      4. Yeah, if Metro’s sole objective was to turn a profit you’d have an entirely different system. Fares would be much higher, you’d give up on serving the transit-dependent on far flung areas, and regional equity would be out the window. Many, many neighborhoods would lose all of their routes.

        You’d probably also try pretty hard to break the ATU.

      5. If the sole objective was to turn a profit then yes, most fares would likely be higher. However, there’s a big difference between running at a profit and maintaining a level of subsidy. Metro’s fare recovery has dipped below 20%. Kevin Desmond has made it a goal to get this back to 25% but he’s not really free to act on policy he feels would accomplish this. Of course fare increases need government approval. This is true for private utilities that are granted a monopoly as well. PSE has to show they are running efficiently when asking for a rate increase. As far as serving transit dependent in far flung areas, well, we wouldn’t have transit dependancy in these areas if routes hadn’t been diverted there in the first place. One purpose of transit is to encourage density. There are certain tradeoffs to living in suburban and rural areas. Not being able to provide for your own transportaion needs shouldn’t give anyone a “free pass”.

      6. Metro and ST know what to do. They have been improving the route system whenever they can. But their ideas get sidelined by a county council swayed by NIMBYs, one-seat riders, and 40/40/20.

    1. Mike,
      But also remember, when the tax was 3/10ths of a percent, there was also Motor Vehicle Excise Tax revenue. I believe this additional revenue source helped to minimize the affects of a down economy. I think what it allowed was that during the bad times, while the transit agencies didn’t grow much, they also did not have to reduce service much. Just a couple thoughts.

      1. I think you’re right, but MVET was a pretty small piece of the pie. Does anyone know where to find historical data (service hours, expenses, and revenue) for Metro, PT or CT without trying to mine data in the Nat’l Transit Database. I think I’d rather lose a fist fight than to get lost in there again.

      2. Initiative 695 | Overview and Impact

        The state motor vehicle excise tax, before it was repealed, helped to fund the following:

        * Local transit districts
        * County public health account
        * Distressed county assistance account
        * Ferry capital construction account
        * Ferry operations account
        * Motor vehicle fund
        * Transportation fund
        * City & county sales tax equalization
        * Municipal & county criminal justice

        Metro Transit was the biggest loser, with $124,015,975 lost (2003-04).

        Without digging out the old budget numbers I think that accounted for about 25% of Metro’s budget. MVET voted on directly to fund a transit related activity (as ST used it for example) has fared well. I think the reason I-695 passed with such a large majority is that the tax had become a slush fund for so many different things there was no longer any accountability. “Distressed county assistance account”, what’s that?

        However, a 9/10% rate should still be more than enough to make up for the loss of the MVET revenue. Boom bust cycles in the Puget Sound economy are nothing new; unemployment in Seattle was at 13.8 percent in 1972.

    2. Not an economist but I’ll take a shot at it. Back in the 70’s and even into the 80’s Metro wasn’t burdened by the percentage of not performing routes that it is today (look at what fare recover for the eastside has done to drag down the system average). Direct wages may be indexed closely to inflation but benefits are not. Medical has sky rocketed and that affects retirement expenses. It’s not as bad as say GM where there was a continually shrinking pool of workers to support the retirement fund but it’s still something that weighs heavily. Finally there’s just a political culture of ambivalence toward controlling spending and an arrogance that always paints a budget shortfall as a revenue problem. Witness the passenger ferry. The contracted ferry service from West Seattle was a luxury; buying a boat and putting more workers on the county payroll is pure folly. Tacoma Link, Sounder North, SLUT, the list goes on. Never do any of these parasites get purged.

    3. I agree with a lot of Bernie said, although I have some problems with his list of “parasites”. Also, we’ve sprawled a lot, in both jobs and housing, over the last few decades. That’s really expensive to serve.

  2. PT is in a decent position in that they can go to the voters without the legislature, but that doesn’t make it a sure thing. We in Seattle need to get out to support transit in Tacoma too, just like with Mass Transit Now! Even if we can’t physically go down to put up signs we can provide a lot of online support.

  3. The trouble is that all public transit is subsidized. So adding more service always adds more cost. Plus when you tie the subsidy and the fares to a measure that does not float with inflation, as time goes by the real dollars go down.

    Autos are also subsidized as well… gas tax (state roads), property tax (local roads), income tax (federal highways)

    We are seeing the same effect with the deterioration of the bridges and roads as the real dollar revenue is down, and the number of roads & bridges has increased over the years.

    1. The gas tax isn’t tied to inflation since it’s per unit volume rather than unit cost. MVET is no longer tied primarily to the price of vehicles. Sales tax on the other hand is automatically indexed to inflation and a growing population. Further, in King County the median household income has continued to rise faster than inflation. An increase in density, something transit is supposed to promote, would provide for economy of scale. Transit certainly doesn’t deserve the blame for “sprawl” but the political decisions to run routes hither, thither and yon not only sinks the transit budget but is in fact a sprawl contributor.

  4. It still isn’t a “growth” plan. This 5% increase in service would essentially put PT back to where it was before a 5% cut in service was made back in 2009. There isn’t any growth in service hours if this passes – at least not immediately.

    Voters who are generally supportive of transit in Tacoma, are leery of what staff is proposing for route consolidation and rerouting. In my opinion, it doesn’t go far enough to rid Pierce County of the existing routing that is based on the timed transfer facilities, and lacks implementation of a true grid system in Tacoma – even in Downtown Tacoma.

    This “alternative” had better be open to modifications if Pierce Transit wants to see their ballot measure pass.

  5. For the Transit Junkie, a little gem. H/T to WSDOT Public Transit Office for the link below that makes searching the National Transit DataBase a breeze. (I’ll skip the whooping now)
    http://www.ftis.org/INTDAS Florida has all the data you could ever want with an easy to use reader. You’ll have to register to get a password, but it’s free. Enjoy data mining.

  6. This is excellent news! Even though tax increases are touchy issues no matter if times are good or bad, public transit is a necessary resource that needs to continue to allow economic recovery to happen.
    An optimistic fact for Pierce Transit is that CEO Lynne Griffith is very familiar with ballot measures to preserve and enhance service: she was CEO of C-TRAN in Clark Co. during their unsuccessful measure in November 2004, and their subsequent hugely successful September 2005 ballot measure. This later led to C-TRAN reviewing and expanding service on core routes in 2007, which has been a success for them.
    As someone who wishes TriMet (where I am in Portland) would get authorization to go to voters for more operations funding (would be very different due to differences in transit funding in Oregon versus Washington), I’m glad that voters in the Pierce Transit District have the opportunity.
    As someone who said “Yes for jobs! Yes for C-TRAN!” in 2005, I hope the community won’t be a thorn on each others’ side by voting yes for Pierce Transit!
    Jason Barbour, former member of The Committee to Save C-TRAN, 2005
    * This statement is my own and does not constitute an endorsement by anyone else. Previous group membership provided for reference purposes only. *

Comments are closed.