A 0.1% sales tax for transit in Tacoma would boost bus service hours, fund system improvements.

As it stands Tacoma, the second largest city in the Puget Sound region after Seattle, has a dearth of local transit service. The most frequent bus route in Tacoma on weekdays, Route 1 (6th Avenue – Pacific Avenue), is operating once every half hour due to a lack of bus operators. While other local transit services in the Puget Sound region have continued a steady expansion from Kitsap Transit’s fast ferries and Intercity Transit’s fare-free service to King County Metro’s RapidRide lines and Sound Transit’s regional light rail expansion in King County, Pierce Transit has struggled to keep even hourly service on some routes.

Low pay for Pierce Transit operators, and the subsequent lack of bus drivers it has produced, is a major driving factor of the current service cuts, all of which lead back to how much funding is available to run the system. The last time Pierce Transit put a ballot measure to voters for improved local transit service was when President Barack Obama was running for reelection in November 2012. Voters narrowly defeated the measure with a margin of about 700 votes out of over 200,000 cast. While the voters of Tacoma continue to approve measures for local transit, the county sometimes does not. In the years since, Pierce Transit has suffered from substantial service cuts stemming from the impacts of the Great Recession, the fueling station explosion at Pierce Transit headquarters, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The kind of transit investments that Seattle transit taxes have delivered in Seattle by contracting with King County Metro for additional service. (Credit: City of Seattle)

One option for funding that has been on the table for almost a decade has been a 0.1% sales tax through Tacoma’s Transportation Benefit District. The issue of contributing city tax authority to transit funding came up during the 2015 “Tacoma Streets Initiative” ballot measure, but was declined because Pierce Transit was working on a long-range plan that would in turn result in a renewed and more expansive ballot measure. Pierce Transit’s long-range plan (Destination 2040) has been adopted (2016) and undergone an update (2020) since then. It’s been six years and still no countywide ballot measure with no other opportunity in sight. Seattle on the other hand has approved transit taxes that go to contracted bus service with King County Metro twice over.

This inaction on reliable and accessible transit service when paired with the crises of climate action and affordable housing begs the question of whether the City of Tacoma should be doing more to address the problem. Four other issues have received additional sales tax funding from the City since Pierce Transit’s initial ballot measure in 2011: mental health (2012), potholes (2015), the arts (2018), and affordable housing (2021). Not to say that any of those issues are not worthy of being funded, but for the City to sit on its hands for so long while local transit service has decayed comes off as somewhat callous to vulnerable and underserved people who depend on the bus for mobility in our community.

How the 2012 Pierce Transit tax proposition went in each precinct of Tacoma. Most areas voted in favor, but tax failed elsewhere in the Pierce Transit taxing district. (Credit: Image by the author)

While the argument has been made that Tacoma should wait for Pierce Transit to develop the momentum to have another go at a countywide measure, that’s akin to asking a toddler to run a 100 meter dash. We must first walk, then run: build support for transit at a city level and then expand that base of support. Tacoma could get started and plant the seeds of improved service that can roll out to the rest of the county when the time is right.

So I present a rough sketch of action that could be taken to address the issue.

Addressing Transit Inequity in Tacoma

Timeline

  • Early 2022:
    • City Council (or a committee thereof) holds a public hearing on the state of local transit service;
    • City Council considers a resolution to task the Transportation Commission with crafting a program of investment in local transit service; and
    • Staff work with Pierce Transit to develop a contract for services;
  • Mid 2022: Send a 0.1% sales tax for transit purposes to Tacoma voters;
  • Late 2022: Begin collecting sales tax revenues; and
  • Early 2023: Launch improved bus services.

What improvements could a 0.1% sales tax fund?

A 0.1% sales tax brings in between $4 million and $5 million annually in Tacoma, which could translate into roughly 30,000 service hours or some combination of service improvements and fare changes. Here are some relatively low-cost ideas for consideration that would not require fleet expansion:

  1. Longer hours of operation on weekends in Tacoma;
  2. OWL network: Late night weekday on core routes to midnight Route 1 (Tacoma Community College-Parkland], Route 2 [Downtown Tacoma-Tacoma Community College], Route 16 (Proctor-Tacoma Community College), Route 41 (Tacoma Dome-Salishan-Tacoma Mall);
  3. Fare-free service: Fixed route for youth, seniors, people with disabilities;
  4. ORCA Lift: Low income fare program for adults, mirroring King County Metro and Community Transit;
  5. All-day 20-minute headways on Route 1 and 2 on weekdays;
  6. Expanded service between Northeast Tacoma and Federal Way Transit Center;
  7. Extension of Pierce Transit Route 11 to Point Ruston Mixed Use Center;
  8. Rerouting Route 57 from Commerce Street to Tacoma Dome Station;
  9. Reorganize service in Downtown Tacoma to leverage expanded T Line streetcar and ST Express bus service; and
  10. Modify schedules to stagger service on combined corridors (St. Helens Avenue, Yakima Avenue, S. 19th Street).

This is mostly spitballing. I do not have firm numbers on what these service modifications would cost, but most should be affordable. The details could be worked out by the Transportation Commission with some public engagement and consultation with Pierce Transit.

These are personal political opinions as a transit rider and advocate and not in any way reflective of the views of the City of Tacoma Planning Commission or of my employer. They are made with the best intentions of securing equity in transit service relative to the rest of the region.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Chris Karnes a native of Tacoma and well known local writer behind the Tacoma Transit blog.

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Troy A Serad

Chris, thank you for the article. I “hear” you loud and clear.

Cam Solomon

This is an equity issue, far more than in King county, where all income strata ride transit. This is precisely and ironically because service is so bad. Anyone who values their time simply can’t reliably or consistently use PT. That leaves those for whom money is more valuable than time. That is the poor.

Only those who absolutely need to would subject themselves to getting areound town with this pathetic level of service. Until that changes, you will have difficulty getting voters to support it. If you are going to pass any revenue bills though, i think it will have to be City level, not county. The votes are there for that, i think.

The focus should be on improving frequecy of service, to broaden the user base, and therefore making driver pay and benefits more competitive is essential.

Last edited 25 days ago by Cam Solomon
asdf2

Pierce Transit’s service is really terrible, and needs to be improved. An 0.1% sales tax bump is probably not sufficient, but a good place to start.

However, I do question the Urbanist’s choice of language here. The issue in Tacoma is that Pierce Transit bus service sucks, and a city with the size and character of Tacoma should have far better service than the hourly-daytime mess of routes that I would expect to see in places like Whidbey Island. The term “equity” would be appropriate if it were a matter of Pierce Transit deliberately targeting service cuts to fall on black neighborhoods, in spite of higher ridership, while the white neighborhoods didn’t get service cuts. That’s not what we’re seeing. Just plain old bad service across the board is a “bad transit” issue, but it’s not an equity issue.

(In recent years, the left has loved to slap the term “equity” on every issue, whether related or not. I really wish they wouldn’t. It’s subtle, but this is the type of language that drives moderates into the arms of the GOP; please save the term “equity” for issues that are actually about equity.).

Sam

How come when I search for Tacoma Transit Blog nothing comes up?

Cam Solomon

Looks like he let the url lapse.

Screenshot_20211110-062136_Chrome.jpg
Nate

Address inequity by making the worst state/federal taxing structure even more regressive? People in Tacoma pay close to the highest, most regressive transit taxes in the country already (seattle residents have it worse though).

Last edited 26 days ago by Nate
tacomee

Yeah, this is the real problem. Raising the sales tax harms the same lower income people who depend on Pierce Transit.

Pierce Transit is currently stuck in a negative feedback loop. There are big problems with public safety and low service hours that keep people from committing to riding the bus. Folks aren’t going to vote for more money when the bus service is currently isn’t very good.

This dovetails into maybe the biggest problem all the Left Coast cities currently face… labor shortages. With a super high cost of living and regressive sales and property taxes, how are cities like Tacoma, Seattle, S.F, San Diego…. going to hire the essential workers to keep the lights on? Nobody wants to drive a bus in Tacoma anymore…. because the pay won’t buy a 3 bedroom home in the South End. 25 years ago, bus drivers where middle class in Tacoma.

Stephen Fesler

This talking point is overplayed on the sales tax. Yes, the incidence is higher for lower-income folks, but a one-tenth of a penny difference on taxable transactions (which is a smaller share of expenditures) is still a rounding error even on small incomes. ($1,000×0.1%=$1) Meanwhile, the actual benefit (freedom of travel and access to opportunity) is considerably higher for the small tax increase. There are other compensatory benefits that could more than offset this, such as ORCA LIFT outlined by Chris. Still, there’s a whole universe of taxes and fees that Tacoma could consider under a Transportation Benefit District. Getting caught up about one potential funding source is missing the forest for the trees.

tacomee

If the Urbanist wants to actually be “progressive” on issues, lowering taxes on lower income people has to be the #1 issue. Currently “progressive” often means college educated mostly White guys planning tax increases for poorer, often non-White folks. “But it’s transit… it’s for their own good”. Just how bad to Sound Transit lose the last vote in Pierce County? Mayor Woodards isn’t waisting any political capital on Pierce Transit.

But that’s not the main issue here. Pierce Transit doesn’t have the staff to add service hours, even it had the money. Pierce Transit doesn’t have the staff for it’s current service. PT is constantly trying to hire…. $22 an hour….. OK, but not great insurance….. PERS retirement isn’t all that hot either. Driving bus isn’t an easy job. As anybody here ever bothered to write an article advocating for higher pay for rank and file transit workers?

And transit is only the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much every “progressive” issue isn’t going to happen because of labor problems. There’s no way to make a dent in the homeless population without hiring a small army social workers, mental health professionals, construction workers, security personnel…. and nobody really wants these jobs and there isn’t the money to pay for them anyhow.

Stephen Fesler

You’re free to define the political term “progressive” as you like, but a tax is not necessarily regressive if the outcomes are economically and socially progressive. Evaluating a tax based only upon its type is a false way to evaluate a tax. A tax is usually not one dimensional (only revenue). Clearly a sales tax in this case could be designed highly progressive. But as I pointed out, it’s literally not the only option to raise revenue for transit. Fight for another one if you like. Chris is at least arguing that something be done rather than letting transit in Tacoma and Pierce County rot.

You seem to be missing the point of Chris’ article and it’s perplexing as to why. Yes, Pierce Transit has a staffing shortage right now (I literally covered that) but once that’s over and service is restored, service in Tacoma will still be horribly abysmal, which is what Chris’ point seems to be focused on and the cause for raising new revenue to do more.

Please refer to the comment rules and stay on-topic.

tacomee

Pierce Transit has been understaffed for over a decade. PT has big problems with customer service, public safety and professionalism. Unless something changes with driver pay and working conditions, the staffing issues are not going to change.

Getting voters onboard for a sales tax increase to expand service when service is currently so bad? I can’t see that happening in current political climate. I’m pro-transit, but man, we have to live in reality here. Nobody really wants to drive for PT and I can’t see any elected official supporting any new tax to increase for funding.

A “more money for more service” type plan just isn’t going to fix Pierce Transit’s issues.

Mr Brown

I’m not sure what “safety” issues you are referring to, as I drive for Pierce Transit and feel like my passengers and my work environment are safe.

Perhaps poverty makes you feel unsafe? You should consider supporting Pierce Transit to help lift members of our community out of poverty and improve our quality of life.