Politics & Government

A tax vote could be headed your way for public transit in Thurston County. Here's why

Above, Intercity Transit's main hub in downtown Olympia.
Above, Intercity Transit's main hub in downtown Olympia. toverman@theolympian.com

Brisk growth in Thurston County and the Olympia area has brought new challenges for Intercity Transit, including more traffic and new development.

Recently, the agency began a soul-searching mission for dealing with those issues by asking for input about the future of its services. It received more than 10,000 comments.

Now, the transit group is pondering an increase in the sales tax of up to 0.4 percent to pay for maintaining or expanding its programs.

"Our community is growing by leaps and bounds," said Rena Shawver, IT's spokeswoman. The county can't "move forward with a future vision" without the money to back the projects, Shawver said.

Intercity Transit serves Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, and Yelm.

There are many steps between now and a new tax. Not only would an increase need voter approval, Intercity Transit still is deciding how much of an increase to ask for — or whether it will ask for one at all.

The projects to be included in such a tax package also remain under consideration. Shawver said Intercity Transit expects more public input and likely will form different sets of proposals at some point this summer.

It took years to simply reach the planning stages.

State lawmakers twice rejected bills to let Intercity Transit ask for a 0.3 percent sales-and-use tax increase within its jurisdiction. The Legislature in March finally authorized a tax vote despite opposition from some Republicans who worried it could hurt the ability of school districts to pass their own levies.

The agency already was allowed to ask for a 0.1 percent increase, meaning it can ask voters for a total boost of 0.4 percent above their current sales tax level of 0.8 percent.

State Sen. Sam Hunt and Rep. Beth Doglio, both Olympia Democrats, led the charge for Senate Bill 5288.

“Thurston County is growing, and unfortunately our Intercity Transit, which is just a phenomenally run transit system, just simply doesn’t have the resources to keep up,” Doglio said in a House floor speech before the March 2 vote.

Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm, who is now the House Minority Leader, voted against the bill. He noted in a floor speech that a $76 million Yelm school bond vote narrowly failed in February and worried tax fatigue would make it harder for bonds to pass in the future.

"I think it’s absolutely critical that we give the schools first shot at the scarce taxpayer dollars," Wilcox said.

With a stamp of approval from the Legislature, Intercity Transit now turns toward deciding what should be promised in a tax vote.

Compiled responses from the community survey — and Intercity Transit priorities — offer some hints as to what the transit service could target.

At the top of the list is "new or expanded service" to locations in Thurston County.

Shawver said it's "important for us to look at expanding into new areas where there has been rapid growth," including Northeast Lacey.

Those who responded also wanted increased bus frequency on key existing routes and to maintain or expand those routes. Later, earlier and weekend service and new or expanded services to places outside Thurston County also were priorities.

According to a fact-sheet from Intercity Transit, Thurston County's population is expected to grow by about 140,000 people in the next 20 years.

"To meet our community's transportation needs, we must plan for a 63 percent increase in population and how best to serve the nearly 375,000 residents expected throughout the county," according to the agency's website.

Shawver said the agency would ask for a tax level it thinks the community would support. She warned that without any new revenue, the agency could be forced to make cuts to their existing services.

That is in part because the agency relies on sales taxes for operating money, and those revenues can fluctuate based on the strength of the economy, Shawver said.

Intercity Transit also has not raised sales taxes since 2010, when voters approved a 0.2 percent increase in the wake of the Great Recession.

"It’s just the reality of our times," Shawver said. "Expenses go up, costs go up and again sales tax is volatile."

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein