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Commissioners must slash bus service in Pierce County

Photo by Bellamy Pailthorp
In Snohomish County, transit officials have eliminated Sunday bus service. So far, Pierce Transit isn't planning to do so, but they are poised to cut schedules by more than a third because there isn't enough sales tax revenue to support existing service.

Update: On Monday, May 9, the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners approved a 20% permanent service reduction scheduled to start June 12. But the board rejected the proposed plan for the final 15% reduction scheduled for October, and instead directed staff to develop a modified plan that focuses on maximizing ridership.

The next time you're stuck in traffic, frustrated by the length of your commute time, take a moment to consider how long your trip would be if you couldn't drive to your workplace, your doctors office, or your church. 

And what if there were no bus to get you where you needed to go?

Those are the kinds of choices public officials are hearing about right now in Pierce County, which needs to plug a $51-million-dollar hole in its budget for bus service. That will require a 35% reduction in service over the next 6 months.

"Let me give you an example," says 80-year-old Claudia Thomas, the chair of Pierce Transit.

"I was very - emotionally struck - by a woman who is in a wheelchair, for example," Thomas explains. "And she said, 'when you moved this bus stop, it left me a mile away. And I have to go up a hill, in the rain and the snow, now - because the bus is too far for me.' And when you hear those kind of stories, that kind of tugs at your heart."

She says it's just one of hundreds of comments that have been pouring in to the commission that is deciding how to re-route busses, in the wake of the failure of Proposition 1.

Voters declined to give more sales tax authority to commissioners, who wanted to preserve existing services. 

 The reductions will come in two phases, the first is in June. The second is in October. A final vote on the matter takes place this coming Monday (May 9th.)

How could this happen?

When the economy is down, people shop less. That's pretty obvious.  People also look for other ways to save money, such as taking the bus. But if busses are funded by sales tax, it's a tough scenario. That's the situation in Pierce County right now. 

"In Pierce County since 2007, we've seen 5 years now of declining sales tax revenue, " says Jessyn Farrell, the public relations officer for Pierce Transit, who insists they've already done a lot to close their budget gap, "...including layoffs and fare increases and putting off capital projects. But the fact of the matter is, we're still facing a $51-million-dollar hole."

She says the failure of Proposition 1 is requiring Pierce Transit Commissioners to figure out how to consolidate bus service. It's a puzzle of trade-offs that have to be balanced: maximizing efficiency, while minimizing cuts to service. 

So far, they're suggesting keeping service all 7 days, with longer gaps between rides, rather than eliminating Sunday service, as Community Transit recently did in Snohomish County.

Pierce Transit Chair Thomas says, inevitably, some vulnerable populations will be the hardest hit, which hurts her to see.

"You know, many people who vote -- or fail to vote -- don't have to ride the bus. And that's tough, because I don't think there's enough empathy for the handicapped, or the person who is challenged: cannot drive, physically or mentally," Thomas says.

But others insist people are just tapped out. They've overextended themselves financially and are barely hanging on to their homes.  Pierce County has some of the highest foreclosure rates in Washington.    

Thomas says the most challenging areas right now are near Bonney Lake and Orting, which aren't bringing in much sales tax revenue, but still need services to keep them going. Pierce Transit also covers the area near the state's largest mental health hospital, Western State.

One more chance for the public to chime in

This coming Monday (5-9—11, 4pm), commissioners have to decide, based on public testimony, what they will cut.  

Here's a link to the agency's slide show, explaining the situation. Chair Thomas insists it's not too late to have your voice heard.

Please tell us what you think  - what would you do? - in the comments section below, or submit your thoughts straight to Pierce Transit on their site.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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