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Pierce County bus riders face dramatic cuts if sales tax hike fails

Atomic Taco

Bus riders in Pierce County face dramatic cuts to service if voters reject a ballot proposition to hike the sales tax. Opponents are fighting hard against the measure, saying it would make Pierce County’s sales tax the highest on the West Coast.

If you ask people in downtown Tacoma how they feel about paying more in sales tax, you hear a common refrain.

"The sales tax is pretty high as it is, and I think it will be hard for people to swallow," said Michele Anderson.

But some people reconsider when they find out their bus service is in jeopardy, like Janene Flores, for example.

"I don't know, that's a tough one," Flores said. "If I have to, I have to. But I would rather pay higher taxes than have bus routes cut out."

Last year, voters in Pierce County rejected a similar sales tax increase. Now Pierce Transit is trying again, after making layoffs, raising fares, cutting routes, and shrinking the area it covers. This proposition would tack on three cents in sales tax for every 10 dollars spent.

If the measure fails, the transit agency says it will likely have to eliminate bus service on the weekends and after 7 pm. Marilyn Strickland is mayor of Tacoma and chair of the Pierce Transit board.

"If prop 1 fails, we’re going to go back to service levels of 1980," Strickland said.

Since 1980, Pierce County’s population has almost doubled. The problem is that Pierce Transit relies on sales tax for more than 70 percent of its revenue and by state law, can’t tap property tax. The agency says sales tax revenue has dropped for the past four years, leaving Pierce Transit in a hole.

"I’m really most concerned about the local economy, to be honest with you," Strickland said.

Strickland says she’s worried that with fewer buses operating, people won’t be able to get to their jobs, and that could have ripple effects, causing those people to spend less.

"You know, while we talk so much about job growth and job creation, a lot of that is based on the fact that you have to have residents and consumers with the means to spend money, and if they’re not employed, they can’t help contribute to the economic recovery," Strickland said.

Opponents say a higher sales tax also would threaten the economic recovery. Tom Pierson heads the Tacoma Pierce County Chamber, which opposes the sales tax increase. Pierson says it was a tough decision to come out against more funding for transit, because the chamber supports public transportation. But he says pushing the sales tax up even more when the economy is still hurting is a bad idea.

"Everybody’s, you know, under pressure," Pierson said. "It really comes down to people’s pocketbook – and it’s what you have to pay, what you have to pay when you buy your kids’ clothes and what’s that impact on your personal family."

People probably won’t drive to another county to save sales tax on small things, because of the cost of gas. But Pierson says car dealers are really worried. On the RejectProp1 web site, a map calculates how much more sales tax you’d pay in Tacoma or Fife on your average car purchase than in Roy or Olympia. You could wind up paying as much as $570 dollars more in Tacoma than in Roy.

Still, there’s a big gulf separating people who have cars from people who don’t. People like Mike Raymond, who can’t drive a car because he's blind in one eye. I met him at the office of TACID, a non-profit group that helps people with disabilities.

"There’s a bunch of us that need transportation badly," Raymond said.

A spokesman for Pierce Transit says the board will meet in December. Based on next week’s vote, the board will start deciding how to cut or how to restore service.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.