TACOMA, Wash. – Gene Gregory harbors no dreams of becoming a bus driver. But as a volunteer driver for Catholic Community Services, passengers are constantly hopping in and out of his car. And demand for his services has never been higher.
With Pierce Transit drastically cutting service since the dawn of the recession, demand for volunteer drivers, like Gregory, rose 126 percent in just one year.
One of his passengers, Ursula Faresh, has noticed the difference.
“Sometimes I can call a week ahead or ten days and it is already booked,” she said.
And it appears this could just be the beginning.
“I don’t see any, nor does anybody else see any light at the end of the tunnel of how we can correct this problem,” Gregory said.
Pierce Transit is now bracing to slash services again, this time by 28 percent starting in late September.
Details of the cuts have been delivered to passengers through open houses across the country. The deepest cuts will impact midday service and weekends.
“If there’s no buses on weekends, how am I going to see my mom?” one transit rider asked at an open house in Tacoma.
Pierce County is not alone. Metro Transit is now threatening to cut service by 17 percent.
“There’s really no choice that we have,” said Kevin Desmond, Metro’s general manager. “We either eventually have to reduce the system or we need the revenue back that we lost from the recession.”
Transit agencies in Washington rely largely on sales tax revenue, which took a dive over the past few years. Transportation advocates think they need new revenue sources – or, as some say, they need more tools in their toolbox.
“The hope is to have a slightly more stable revenue source to help offset some of those peaks and valleys that you see with transit funding,” said Rob Johnson with Transportation Choices.
Right now the state lets counties charge up to 0.9 percent – or 90 cents for every $100 – for transit. King County is currently at that maximum number.
But Pierce County is only charging 0.6 percent sales tax for transit, despite strong efforts to raise it. On two occasions Pierce Transit has asked voters to hike the sales tax by 0.3 percent, but voters rejected that request both times. The most recent measure failed by just 704 votes, prompting this next round of cuts.
Pierce Transit now hopes lawmakers will give them a new tool, something called an “enhancement zone.” The boundaries would surround parts of the county most likely to approve the 0.3 percent sales tax hike. If people within that zone vote yes, that zone would get better bus service.
“It gives service to people who want service,” said a Pierce Transit spokesman. “It would allow jurisdictions that don’t want to be a part of the zone to opt out of it.”
But to critics, the plan sounds a lot like gerrymandering.
“They should live with the will of the voters,” said Nick Sherwood, who campaigned against Pierce Transit’s attempts to raise the sales tax.
Sherwood fears the enhancement zone would include businesses where people shop, but not homes where voters live.
“We don’t think it’s fair for Pierce Transit to cut voters out of the process while simultaneously saying they’ll still be happy to take their money,” he said.
But transit advocates do not think it is gerrymandering.
“I see it as finding ways to target those folks who are really getting a lot of benefit from the service,” said Johnson, with Transportation Choices.
Lawmakers are exploring other options to help counties improve their transit. They could give Snohomish County permission to increase the sales tax and let King County raise car tab fees and taxes. Any increases would likely need to be approved by voters.
Some lawmakers oppose raising car tab taxes to help transit agencies.
“A lot of vehicle owners are worried that they’re going to pay more when they’re driving their car to pay for somebody to be on a bus,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, leading Republican on the House Transportation Committee.
But Metro fears that slow service and overcrowded buses will push more riders to drive their cars, adding to congestion.
“Even if you don’t use the bus, if you’re a King County resident, there are 400,000 other people getting on and off a bus every day,” Johnson said. “The more of those people that get on the bus, the easier it is for you to get around.”