Transit tax request is a ‘big gulp’

An Intercity Transit bus.
An Intercity Transit bus. Olympian file photo

South Sound voters are going to need some realism – and idealism – to appreciate Intercity Transit Authority’s budget situation as 2018 winds to a close.

An even more open mind may be needed to appreciate what the local transit agency wants to do about it.

IT general manager Ann Freeman-Manzanares says the taxpayer owned agency cannot operate at current levels without making cuts of some 15 percent in costs and services starting next year.

Alternatively, IT must win authority from voters to collect a higher rate of sales tax in the Nov. 6 election.

If the solution is to invest, the question for voters is — by how much? And Intercity Transit is going big, asking voters to fund the agency’s largest tax request in history with Proposition 1.

The transit authority touts its ballot proposal as one that lets IT take a major step that could be “transformational” for local transit, ushering in Bus Rapid Transit along major corridors.

Certainly the request is a “big gulp,” but our recommendation is to support Prop. 1.

If approved, it would add four pennies of sales tax to a taxable $10 purchase, generating $16 million to $20 million a year in new revenue (depending on the economy). That increase represents roughly a fifth or more of what the agency spends today for operations and equipment outlays.

But the need appears to be there.

If overall state and local sales taxes were not already well over 8 cents per taxable $1 sale, this would be a less difficult choice. The request adds 0.4 percent to the combined state-and-local tax rate of 8.9 percent on sales in Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater.

Sales taxes are regressive – meaning they are based on purchases and tend to weigh more heavily on those less able to pay. However, in this case low-wage earners could benefit from better transit.

Ken Balsley, a Lacey resident who was recruited to write a statement against Prop. 1 in the Thurston County Local Voters’ Pamphlet, emphasizes that Prop. 1 is IT’s biggest tax increase ever.

Balsley also argues that the money is destined to be spent on transportation solutions that will – quickly or slowly – become obsolete as autonomous cars become more feasible and Uber and Lyft keep growing in popularity.

Balsley also says transit ridership is dropping. He is correct – to a degree – on all three points but may be drawing the wrong conclusions from limited data.

First, we see no relief in sight for our local traffic as tens of thousands of new residents move here every decade. Adding more single-occupancy traffic is a recipe for more road-widening projects – whether we own the car or hire Uber to get us down the road.

Though adding lanes to roads and thoroughfares can relieve peak-hour congestion, that can be costly, too.

And wider roads do not address a legitimate need that our lower-wage workers, lower-income elderly and disabled – and our environmentally committed commuters – have, if they can’t afford a car.

Another point to remember is that Seattle posted the largest increase in bus ridership of any U.S. city earlier this decade, and as its investments in rail and other transit balloon, transit ridership hit all-time highs in 2017.

Similarly, IT has found that bus routes with higher-frequency pickups along Martin Way are seeing growth in ridership, while overall the agency has seen fewer riders.

That link between more frequent service and ridership argues overall for a transit strategy that provides a lot more frequent options to commuters in heavy-traffic corridors – and extended hours of pickup for people who work earlier or later.

And that is what IT is trying to do. If Prop. 1 passes, IT wants to phase in “Bus Rapid Transit,” or 15-minute service along the Martin Way corridor from the east around Marvin Road to the west in Olympia during peak times.

Similar high-use routes with 30-minute pickups can be beefed up to every 15 minutes from Olympia to Tumwater , the mall in West Olympia and to The Evergreen State College.

Service would also begin earlier and run later both on weekdays and weekends. Expanded night-owl service on weekend evenings would nearly quadruple the number of routes taking travelers home from entertainment hubs.

And IT is promising to expand Dial-A-Lift services for the disabled and bus service into new outlying areas where neighborhoods and commercial areas are developing in Yelm, Olympia, Tumwater and northeast Lacey.

Bus stops with lighting and other capital improvements are also planned.

The new money stream could also make it easier for the agency to match federal and state grants that do become available to expand or renovate its crowded bus-service bays and to repair its leaky administrative offices.

A majority on the Thurston County Board of Commissioners and many members of the Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater city councils are backing the measure. Among them are ITA board members Carolyn Cox of Lacey, Clark Gilman of Olympia and Debbie Sullivan of Tumwater.

Of course, the infusion of funds could test IT’s ability to manage its growth.

But we won’t get something for nothing in this era of shrinking federal and state transit grants. These traditionally were the means by which local transit activities got traction.

Like it or not, it’s up to all of us to build a transit system that works for more of us. Vote for Intercity Transit Authority’s Prop. 1.