The best that can be said about the fortunes of Washington's local bus systems, in these lean years of recession, is that managers are learning how to cope with adversity.
“We're sort of bouncing along the bottom,” says Richard DeRock, general manager of Link Transit, which serves the Wenatchee area. “We didn't have a whole lot of reserves coming into this recession. We've been burning through them not quickly, but a lot faster than we expected.”
With 21 routes, 55 vehicles, and a budget of $10.3 million, Link is “small- to mid-sized,“ in DeRock’s words, and in many ways typifies Washington's local transit operations. It does however cover 3,500 square miles of territory — the state's largest transit service area. Its fares do not exceed $2, even on the longest routes, and passengers defray only 6 percent of operating expenses; the stateside average is 12 percent. As with almost all the state's local bus systems, a sales tax component levied within the service area provides the bulk of operating revenue – 76 percent of it, to be precise. And when the economy sags, sales tax revenues droop, too, necessitating some hard decisions.
Link's sales tax receipts plummeted 13.5 percent between 2008 and 2009, and have dropped about another 1 percent this year. In northwestern Washington, the Whatcom Transportation Authority's (TWA's) sales tax income has fallen almost 12 percent since 2008. Bremerton-based Kitsap Transit saw 17 percent of its sales tax funding evaporate in 2008 and 2009.
In a more high-profile situation, Metro Transit in King County is looking at its options for cuts and efficiencies, with a task force's report being unveiled at noon today (Nov.5) and going to the King County Council on Monday (Nov. 8). But similar challenges face smaller agencies around the state.
“All of (Washington's) systems are trying to make adjustments first before having to go out to the voters to ask for a sales tax hike,” says Geri Beardsley, executive director of the Washington State Transit Association, which represents 25 providers. State law limits transit agencies to a .9 percent sales tax component. Four agencies, including King County Metro, have already reached that limit, while several others, including Kitsap Transit, which stands at .8 percent, are getting close to it.
“We could only go .1 percent higher — if we dared ask the voters for anything right now,” says Richard Hayes, Kitsap's executive director.
The adjustments Beardsley refers to can involve raising fares, reducing services, or reshuffling routes to squeeze more service out of each revenue dollar. Early in 2009, Kitsap, for example, bumped its basic fare up from $1.50 to $2 and pruned services by 17 percent - precisely the drop in sales tax receipts. Promptness of action removed the need to dip into cash reserves, Hayes reports.
“By mid-2009 we were back to a sustainable level of operations. We gained a lot of revenue, but we probably lost 15 percent of ridership. Having the commuter base has made things better than it might be elsewhere in the state. A high percentage of the people in Kitsap are well employed in Seattle and can afford the higher fares.”
Deferring capital investments, such as for new buses, can also improve the arithmetic. Plenty of other public agencies rely on local sales taxes, too, so asking voters to dig deeper in hard economic times is clearly the last resort.
Still, Beardsley notes, two of the three agencies that sought sales tax increases earlier this year received them. For Bellingham-based WTA, the one agency that saw its request get the thumbs-down, it was demographics that proved fateful in its first attempt.. In Bellingham, 65 percent of voters approved the proposed .2 percent hike in the tax. Sixty percent of the WTA service area's population lies outside the city, however, and doesn't get nearly the transit coverage — and there the referendum garnered only 35 percent support.
Bellingham formed its own transportation taxiing district and passed a measure on Tuesday that it will use to restore some service cuts.
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