Projected Service Hours

Today the Pierce County Auditor is slated to certify the failure of Pierce Transit Proposition 1 by a thin margin of 704 votes, out of more than 200,000 votes cast (49.83% Approved to 50.17% Rejected).

There is really no way to sugar coat the potential impacts of the failure of Prop 1. This will mean an uncertain future for many riders in Pierce County, restricting access to jobs for low-income individuals, health care for people with disabilities, and schools for college and high school students. With the failure of Proposition 1, Pierce County is on course for drastic service reductions in 2014 in the realm of a 50% cut of current service levels. That is on top of a 43% cut in service since Pierce Transit’s 2007 peak of roughly 625,000 fixed route service hours.

Weekend and weekly midday service are slated to disappear and no buses would run after 7pm on any day. Paratransit service for seniors, disabled veterans, and other people with disabilities will vanish along with the fixed route.

For comparison, bus service would be lower than when Pierce Transit first began operating back in 1980. If nothing is done, it would mean less service than cities smaller than Tacoma such as Olympia and Bellingham. It would render the local transit system incapable of providing even a minimal level of mobility.

By the Numbers

Click to view pdf

While the future of transit in Pierce County is bleak, repeated election results indicate persistent and robust support for public transit within the City of Tacoma.

If Proposition 1 had been decided by Tacoma alone, the margin would have been more than +7,200 votes. In many parts of the City, especially areas constructed along historic streetcar lines with nearby mixed use districts, support for transit exceeded 60%.  Pro-transit Tacoma neighborhoods like the Stadium District, Proctor District, Lower 6th Avenue, and Hilltop supported Prop 1 by margins that almost balanced out the marginal no votes from the rest of the entire county.  As with Prop 1 in 2011 and with ST2 in 2008 Tacoma has demonstrated that it will vote for buses and trains as many times as is needed to preserve and expand access to jobs, education, and medical care.

The close rejection of Prop 1 is by no means a mandate against transit services in Pierce County. If anything there is a mandate for finding alternate revenue options going into legislative sessions in Olympia and Washington D.C., as well as exploring local options. Today, for instance, the Tacoma City Council is expected to exercise its councilmanic option for a $20 vehicle license fee to fund transportation projects with a city Transportation Benefit District.

We encourage the Tacoma City Council to investigate using potential TBD funding sources for a service overlay for local transit within Tacoma. We also encourage them to invest in creating a transit master plan as a policy framework for transit investments that can stand alongside the City’s Bike-Ped plan and Complete Streets policies.

Going forward, we hope those in the business community join us to advocate for more sustainable funding sources for Pierce Transit. We were disappointed not to have had their support in this close and critical election.

Chris Karnes writes for TacomaTomorrow and Kate Whiting served as campaign manager for the Restore Transit Now campaign.

84 Replies to “What’s Next for Pierce Transit?”

  1. Looking at Tacoma transit in the context of current light rail efforts including those funded by a Transportation Benefit District makes a lot of sense. I’d urge you all to also look at the history of the first two Sound Transit bond submissions, the first failing, like here, the second passing, with some quid pro quo highway dollars going to the East King County in exchange for a delay in Sound Transit service.

    That said, in the interim working for local bike and pedestrian connections is all the more important – including the nexus of trails connecting near the Tacoma Dome – the most important link of which is the Dome to Waterfront/Downtown connection.

      1. You’d have to tear it down and build something new from scratch. It’s not up to any sort of modern professional sports standard. And at that point… you’d be a fool not to build your new arena where the money is. That is, in Seattle.

      2. 1. Overlay the design for the “new arena” on the Tacoma Dome. It’s pretty much the exact same thing.

        2. The money is where people can get free access to the stadium using transit and autos. That is Tacoma Dome, not downtown Seatle! Also Seattle is not a sports audience. The 2/3rds empty Sonics games proved that. Tacoma is more of a sports town.

      3. Even if Tacoma is “more of a sports town,” it’s much poorer — no one can afford to buy the sports princelings’ $50 tickets — and *one-fourth* the size of Seattle, less if you count close-in suburbs to each city. Remember that Bellevue and Kent together, by themselves, are significantly larger than Tacoma.

      4. The 2/3rds empty Sonics games proved that. Tacoma is more of a sports town.

        This is simply a lie, unless you’re referring to some seasons in the early 80’s, which is simply irrelevant. In their final season, when everyone knew they were leaving, and they were intentionally playing a terrible team to get a high draft pick and suppress attendance, the Sonics averaged 78% of capacity. That was the lowest attendance in 15 years. When the team was actually good (1995-1999) they sold out every game. NBA attendance is a matter of public record, so I’m not sure why you think you can get away with lying about it like this.

        At any rate, the NBA won’t give a team to the region unless they give them a fancy new stadium–either a very expensive set of upgrades to the Key Arena or a new one. No local government–especially not Tacoma!–can afford to do such a thing, nor should they waste money on such a massive corporate welfare project. Fortunately, a private investment group has come forward that seems to be willing to build it with modest public investment. They’ve got a plan for Seattle; we can’t force them to switch to Tacoma, nor should we.

      5. I bought a game back to the Key for the Sonics and used to transit up from Kent to many of those games. Maybe the “average” was higher, but I know I sat in a lot of nearly empty stadiums for those games.

        Also, I remember a poll taken when the Sonics left Seattle. Only 1/3rd of the public cared…one third didn’t care and the final third actively wished they would leave because they disliked professional sports!

      6. Look, the pertinent market for sports is TV, not the area. The important thing is to fill the arena for the cameras. Lower the prices and Tacoma would more likely do that then Seattle, based on previous history.

      7. It’s not so much that people dislike professional sports, but they don’t like government giveaways to them, their monopolistic position, their profits-before-sports attitude and hype, and their misleading marketing that they’re an economic benefit to the region.

      8. At any rate, the NBA won’t give a team to the region unless they give them a fancy new stadium–either a very expensive set of upgrades to the Key Arena or a new one.

        According to the basketball wonks on KJR Sports Radio (which I am regularly subjected to at my place of employment), the NBA finds Key Arena completely unacceptable, with or without renovations. With renovations it would have been OK for a pre-existing team to stay there, but they will not move a new team into a facility like that. The facilities bar is much higher when you are trying to get a team than when you’re trying to retain an existing one.

        If a renovated Key Arena is unacceptable, I see no way that a dinosaur like the Tacoma Dome would be accepted as an alternative.

      9. Tacoma’s too far away from the population center to be viable…football could work since each (rare) game is a big to do. Basketball, no way.

      10. I remember the Sonics played a season in the TacomaDome and had the leagues highest attendance numbers. The Sounders played there too.

        I don’t get this dismissive attitude towards Tacoma, our state’s second largest metro or for its more than adequate multipurpose stadium facility.

    1. I have to agree—that there’s such a clean geographic divide in the county of people who don’t want to pay for improved (or continued) transit services, suggests to me that the county borders are not the right ones for defining an appropriate service/taxing area. Hopefully the TBD can make something like this work.

      1. People in Tacoma are getting a lot more for their money than people in the outlying areas. Yet everyone is ask to paying the same amount in taxes. Eliminating the routes outside of Tacoma would certainly make the system more efficient but Tacoma residents would end up paying a lot more to maintain existing service levels. It would likely pass but the business community would surely raise a huge stink over a sales tax differential of almost a full percent inside the city limits.

      2. Bernie—That’s not at all obvious to me. I certainly agree that people in outlying areas get less service for the same tax dollars, *but* it’s also relatively more expensive (per person) to serve people in outlying areas. So ultimately rural areas may be getting what they pay for, and perhaps even more. You certainly could be right, but intuitively (to me at least) the opposite is actually true.

      3. The county borders were appropriate when we actually had an MVET to supplement the sales taxes coming from areas without major retail. The MVET provided 38% of PT’s revenues back in 2002. When that was repealed by the legislature, it disproportionately removed revenue from predominantly suburban residential areas.

      4. I’d rather see TBD funding than breaking up Pierce Transit. That way Tacoma and the blue islands can have their improvements rather than just cutting Puyallup off, and if other burbs want to join in later there won’t be the artifial red tape of Tacoma’s municipal boundaries. “Pierce Transit” is what people are used to, and now they’re used to it covering an arbitrary blob within the county. So we might as well just keep the name and administration and assets, and let the blob shape evolve as it will.

  2. I’m surprised by Fife’s northern precinct– not many residents, to be sure, but a strong blue. Is that an error or faulty data?

    1. It would be easier to see what’s going on if the precinct map could be overlaid on the transit map, but I think that’s a real phenomenon.

      1. Actually, Fife has a number of apartments along the bluer portion of Pacific Highway. It’s not a data error, you’re looking at support along Route 500, which runs from Tacoma to Federal Way.

  3. Wow. Does this mean that no one east or south of Tacoma (except parts of Fife) just don’t care about transit? This graphic is depressing. Would people really go for a $20 car tab fee? I am not sure, because people here tend not to want to pay for services, but the services need to get their money from somewhere. And, even worse, Tacoma has proved itself to be in full support of the measure, and is passing it by very high margins, essentially kicking and screaming to save its bus service, might be out of luck because everyone else doesn’t want it. (And whenever I say “Tacoma”, I mean “Tacoma except Northeast Tacoma.”)

    1. The people have spoken, they don’t want to subsidize bums and pimps busing around on their dime.

      Hand out taxi vouchers and run a para-transit van

      1. Paratransit is the most expensive of all services to run. It can easily consume you’re entire budget if your’re not careful.

        P.S. are you the same Big Don that was on misc.transport.urban-transit?

      2. Holy crap is that the same Big Don from the 90’s or are we thinking of different people?

      1. Prior to the formation of Pierce Transit, there was virtually no bus service outside the city. The Tacoma Transit lines all had turnbacks at the city limits, except for a route that cut through a little bit of Fircrest and the Pacific Avenue line, which went all the way to Parkland. Metro Route 432 took an excrutiatingly long path between Seattle and Tacoma a few times a day. A small private operator ran some service between Downtown Tacoma and the American Lake V.A. Hospital and between Lakewood and Sumner. Another outfit operated between Bremerton and Tacoma. That was it.

      2. About an hour and a half generally.

        A samping of times from 8th and Stewart to Tacoma are:
        630 am to arrive at 758
        730 am to arrive at 858

        And they generally ran every 2 hours all the way to tacoma. Most coaches turned back at Pac Hwy and S. 348th.

    2. I take away something a little different. The system could survive electorally with the voters from Tacoma City limits, while the municipalities of Lakewood, Gig Harbor, Fircrest, University Place, Fife and unincorporated Parkland roughly breakeven. That would be tantamount to the portions of Legislative Districts 26, 27, 28, and 29 that remain within the boundary. LD’s 25 and 31 were not supportive.

  4. If nothing is done, it would mean less service than cities smaller than Tacoma such as Olympia and Bellingham.

    Which begs the question, how is it these smaller communities are able to provide more service with less tax revenue and lower fares?

    1. My guess is that the tax revenue per capita is higher in these places and they have smaller service areas with more dense populations making each dollar spent more effective.

      1. There was a similar vote for WTA, that failed due to the outlying areas, the City of Bellingham overwhelmingly voted for it. So, as a result, the city of Bellingham put a vote up for a tax increase to subsidize WTA service on Sunday and expanded hours in Bellingham only and it passed overwhelmingly. Bellingham has good service for a small city. I mean even where I live in Mount Vernon, we have Sunday service. Skagit Transit does a great job for us!

    2. Intercity Transit gets the full 0.9% TBD tax so it isn’t “less revenue” at least on a per-capita basis.

      1. Some digging and it looks like IT is working with a .8% sales tax. Their strategic plan is to ask voters for another .1% in either August of 2013 or 2014. In 2002 the agency stopped running transit to the back of beyond and voters within the urban growth boundaries voted to double the sales tax percentage for transit from .3% to .6%. But at the same time they lost MVET funding. The last increase to .8%, passed in 2010 with a 64% yes vote. It was accompanied by a 33% increase in fares to one whole dollar! I think it was jacked up again last October to $1.25. I couldn’t find a break out of cost for fixed route service but combined fixed route and Dial-a-Lift works out to $120/hr. IT appears to be an agency with a plan and has proven that it can adapt to whatever curves are thrown at it.

      2. Except that longtime general manager Mike Harbour just left for Sound Transit, so a lot could change. Pierce Transit was a top-notch system under the leadership of Don Monroe and look at where they are now.

  5. Had PT gone for a smaller increase that preserved or only slightly decreased service, would we be having this discussion? I doubt it. Imposing the highest sales tax in the state on Tacoma was a powerful message.

    1. The message by the opponets was a lie. the 10.1% they kept touting only applied to new cars bought in tacoma. the regular rate would have been 9.7 to 9.8% on regular purchases. I dont think the actual .2 in place of .3 would have changed anything. Long story short though, the sales tax is getting tapped out.

      1. “the regular rate would have been 9.7 to 9.8% on regular purchases”

        Can you name jurisdictions with higher tax rates? My point is, raising the sales tax has its limits.

      2. Canadian and European tax rates are irrelevant. For better or worse, people here are far more skeptical about taxes.

        Seattle has a 9.5% sales tax which ties with Chicago for the highest big city tax rate in the country. Sales tax is relatively easy to avoid. Efforts to improve tax collection are under way but there is still work to be done, ideally at the Federal level although we all know how difficult that would be.

      3. Of course, we’re paying zippo in state income taxes, so it’s not a direct comparison to most other states.

  6. No wonder it failed. The chart above showed that the highest percentage of yes voters in a region was in Tacoma with “0.73%”, which means that 99.27% of the voters there voted no.
    Or it was just a mistake, and he meant 73% and not 0.73%.


  7. Chris – How could PT support 625,000 service hours in 2007 with a 0.6% sales tax, but only be able to afford 260,000 service hours in 2014 with a 0.6% sales tax? Has the tax base really dropped by more than half? How much has the $/service hour increased? Why? CNG should be near record low prices.

    Has PT considered route and stop consolidation instead of eliminating weekend service? Their system map still looks like overlapping spaghetti, despite so many cuts. It seems that a reorganization could be made.

    1. I’m not here to defend PT’s hourly costs, but surely part of the issue is that the PTBA shrank significantly this year.

      1. Ridership dropped from 14M to a little over 12M (-13%) between 2010 and 2011. The annual budget report attributes that to a 25% reduction in service hours. That all looks fine but it should result in a decrease in cost per boarding and an increase in farebox recover. Yet for some reason both figures went in the opposite direction. And cost per service hour went from $114.02 up to an astonishing $139.91. Personnel expenditures went from $82,910,872 to $82,413,780; virtually zero savings despite a huge reduction in service. Fuel contracts have skyrocketed from $5,718,378 in 2009 to $7,409,316 in 2010 and $10,620,144 in 2011. This despite the cost of oil remaining flat and powering most of their vehicles with natural gas. But fuel remains at only 7% of total expenditures.

      2. A drop in service hours practically ALWAYS makes farebox recovery WORSE and INCREASES cost per boarding. You haven’t figured this out yet, Bernie? It’s a basic principle of *mass* transportation. Costs are essentially fixed, but a drop in service hours means a drop in ridership and revenue. This is just how it *workes*. It *always* works this way.

    2. One of the big money makers for transit (so to speak) is the sale of houses and cars. The day-to-day purchases we all make dont bring in a lot of money for transit. In 2007, houses were getting sold as fast as they could be built, and new cars were driving off the lots the same day they drove on. Since than, those two areas have significantly fallen from what they once were, Both in number of sales, and the value of the sale (when houses were regularly going for near-obscene levels, of course transit was raking in the dough, now that its plummeted in pierce county, well…) Thats a good part of the reason why the .6% dosent bring you as much as it used to. The shrinkage of the service area dosent help either, as a lot of residental areas are now out of the district, leading to the loss of revenue from the sales of those homes as well (and any other sales tax they might generate as well).

  8. With the failure of Proposition 1, Pierce County is on course for drastic service reductions in 2014 in the realm of a 50% cut of current service levels. That is on top of a 43% cut in service since Pierce Transit’s 2007 peak of roughly 625,000 fixed route service hours.

    The numbers just don’t add up. With no change in the existing taxation level PT is only able to provide ~28% of the service it could afford five years ago? The only way that could possibly be true is if fix costs are totally out of wack.

    In February 2011 it was expected that sales-tax revenue would grow 4 percent by 2013. That projection has since dropped to an expected increase of only 1 percent.

    So again, the word “decrease” when applied to tax revenue actually means a smaller than wished for increase. Factored for inflation it’s probably close to flat. The real number values seem to be obfuscated but ridership in 2012 looks to be around 10 million boardings. Numbers floated for Prop 1 pegged the additional revenue from the .3% increase at $30 million. From the chart above it looks like a .1% increase is close to what’s required to maintain current service levels. That means PT is saying they need to increase the subsidy per boarding by $1 in addition to the real dollar increase provided by the projected sales tax revenue. The PT budget would seem to bare this out as coast per passenger has gone from $4.63 in 2009 to $5.75 in 2011. KC Metro is ~$4 and the national average is ~$3. Over the same time period PT farebox recovery has dropped from 19% to 15%. KC Metro has gone from ~17% up to ~25$. This is a leaner meaner transit agency?

    1. I agree, the numbers don’t even pass the sniff test for credibility. With those kind of wild swings in service, costs, and revenues, the public had a right to be wary of further support.
      Sounds like PT has done a poor job of explaining how their wise and prudent use of tax revenue justified a 50% increase in the sales tax rate.

      1. PT’s revenue from sales tax is a little over $64.5 million. The proposed increase from .6% to .9% was, with lower economic projections expected to raise an additional $30 million. Thus the 50% increase in revenue from sales tax over what they are currently granted. In real numbers the .6% sales tax dedicated to PT has dropped from an all time high of $77M in 2007. However, that has been offset by an increase of over $13M transferred from ST’s pot of gold. Total revenue has increased from $121,259,801to $124,475,886. But total expenses have gone from $113,190,691 to $138,525,699. Total revenue hours (ST + PT fixed route) have dropped from 692,000 to 650,000. A 6% cut in service vs a 22% increase in spending.

      2. Thanks guys, I can do math. The sales tax rate wouldn’t have increased by 50%, the portion collected by PT would have increased by 50%.

        “Doubling the sales tax” was a common scare tactic used by the ant-ST2 crowd in 2008, when in reality the sales tax was only going up by 5%.

    2. Of course health care costs grow much faster than CPI inflation, and that’s probably much more relevant to PT’s expenses.

      1. It’s still hard to fathom that after all the service cuts labor expense was reduced by less than 1%. And keep in mind that all cost of living adjustments have been frozen. Some service hours were cut in February after the CNG refueling station exploded. More were cut in June and October. Overall fixed route service hours dropped to 498,819 in 2011 from 618,566 in 2010; a drop of 20%. If you cut payroll by 20% and then assume half of your employee costs are healthcare related and jump by 30% you should still net an 8% decrease.

      2. Service cuts basically don’t reduce expenses. They never have and they never will. You really haven’t figured this out yet? It happens with all *mass* transportation: even the apparently variable costs are mostly fixed costs, really.

      3. @Bernie I wonder if reason the labor costs seem a bit high is because of the cuts in service? Typically, when a company with a union goes through a layoff, the lower seinority members would go first, leaving the higher seinority (and probally capped out) employees remaining. Considering the reduction in workforce, if a significant number of your employees are at the top pay step that would probally tend to make the numbers look a bit off.

      4. Yes, being left with the most senior members of the work pool is part of it. PT explains that in the budget report. With an average age of 55 I’m sure that pushes health care costs higher too. Longer term many are going to be retiring. That’s a double edged sword though depending on how much current revenues have to contribute to retirement obligations. OTOH it is somewhat offset by decreased costs of hiring and training new employees and you hope that the senior drivers experience helps productivity. Still when they can bill ST cost plus and their fixed route service is down 20% you’d expect some cost reductions. If PT has dug a hole so deep that labor has become a fixed cost then there’s really no recourse but to bury the agency and start fresh.

      5. There are still a fair number of employees with seniority grandfathered in from their time with the Tacoma Transit System. I believe they are still paying into the City of Tacoma retirement plan instead of Washington PERS and are on the hook for more generous benefits.

    3. My understanding is that a similar mistrust of PT management is what lead the state to not allow them the same authority to levy a $20 CRC like King County. Metro made a solid case that they’d aggressively pursued cost-cutting measures and “efficiencies” before asking for additional revenue.

      The state may have been right. Go ride route 1 or 2 and tell me they don’t desperately need stop diets; there’s a lot of “free” service hours waiting to be discovered in the existing PT network.

  9. ANYway, looking at that political map, it seems like the future is Tacoma Transit, with a few extensions to Fircrest, Gig Harbor, and possibly Steilacoom or northern Fife.

    1. Its intresting that if you compare it to the Prop 1 held during a special election in 2011 (which they generally bring out the no voters), it passed in most of the new boundary. I think the real reason it failed was not sales tax, but the placement on the ballot. It was on the reverse side of the ballot, below the judges. I think a lot of people got to the judges and gave up, causing there to be 15,000 under votes.

      1. No, it’s the thousands of signs that said “up to 10.1% sales tax? It’s too much!”

        The amount of misleading material in those two sentences is beyond comprehension.

      2. The number of undervotes was concerning. I wasn’t under the impression that we would seriously be the last thing on the ballot – since it was a measure that was covering multiple jurisdictions.

  10. Here’s a rough proposal for Pierce Transit as an alternative to ending service at 6pm and on weekends:

    10 core routes, serving all major transit centers and destinations in a grid.
    Each route 45-50 minutes end-to end, turnaround time of 2 hours.
    30 min frequency all day, so 4 buses in service per route.
    Fleet = 4 x 10 = 40 buses
    Service span of 6am – 9pm + 1 hour/day deadheading to and from base (16 hours)
    365 days per year
    Annual service-hours = 40 buses x 16 hours/day x 365 days = 233,600.

    Maybe PT’s current system works better for everyone, but Pierce County should have that discussion and realize the trade-offs.

    1. This is an excellent plan and would serve the most people. Perhaps I’m cynical, but it would probably never come to fruition because it wouldn’t appease all the municipalities in the service area and it doesn’t inflict enough “pain” on the public.

      On weekends, you could probably get away with one-hour headways on some of the routes, because that is already status quo, which would allow you to expand the span of service on a few routes even later on weekdays.

      Speaking of deadheading, I wonder how many service hours are wasted because the PT base is so far to the southwest. The original base at S. 12th and Sprague, inherited from the Tacoma Transit System (and now a Public Storage facility), was so much closer to the bulk of the service.

      1. How about cut Fridays in order to run more frequently or for a longer span or to have more routes in operation Monday-Thursday?

    2. However you are not considering the cost to run the paratransit componet that needs to be ran as well. Its my understanding that its cost is about on par with that of your fixed routes. So in reality You’d need 467,000 hours to meet both the fixed and paratransit piece (even though it isnt calculated that way, the cost is about the same).

  11. In the comments section of the News Tribune a couple of people blame PT CEO Lynne Griffith for the inability of the agency to run more efficiently. There might be something to it since she left Portland in 2006 following service cuts at the peak of the boom years. I seem to remember reading that much of Portland’s financial problem stemmed from shenanigans with pension fund accounting. OTOH, she’s received numerous awards since joining PT.

  12. They should look into contracting out their entire bus service. Other agencies, I believe one was in San Diego, have saved 30% this way. They should also consider contracting out common office functions, such as human resources and payroll.
    In addition, they should consider taking the opportunity to make their agency the most transparent of them all. Cost would probably preclude having audio and video of their board meetings, but would be a good investment. Posting staff reports and agendas in advance of meetings. Providing disclosure of major expenditures, progress on major projects (on budget, on time, if not, why not), organizational charts, ratios of managers to staff, salaries of managers would be precedent-setting.

    1. While the board certainly should look at any potential cost savings of outsourcing I doubt it will provide any real savings from a life-cycle perspective.

      PT is the lowest cost operator for Sound Transit services. CT, which is just a pass through for First Transit, is more expensive (though both are much cheaper than Metro). Then there is the contrast in safety record between the First Transit drivers and union drivers working directly for their respective transit agencies. The drivers directly employed by CT, ET, MT, and PT have a much better safety record.

      As for back office functions the savings are much less than you might think. Payroll is really the only one that it makes sense to ship off wholesale no matter if you are a 10 person organization or a 100,000 person organization. ADP and other payroll processing companies have tremendous economies of scale.

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