This week I attended a roundtable discussion on state transportation funding at the Machinists Union Hall in Everett, one of many that are being held around the region. There was a small, but good group of participants, including State Reps. Marko Liias and Mike Sells, Snohomish County Council Chair Dave Somers and Edmonds City Council President Strom Peterson.
People were focused on priorities for the 2012 Legislature, which is supposed to take up the issue of state transportation funding, including possible money for transit.
Somers discussed the county’s planning efforts, which include both a six-year transportation plan and a 30-year multimodal plan. He was proud of the fact that county planners worked collaboratively with transit and the various cities in creating their plans. But, purely from a capital perspective, he said there is already a $60 million funding gap for the six-year plan.
Fixing the infrastructure we now have and looking at road projects is a priority for the county heading into the legislative session. Somers, who is a member of the Community Transit Board of Directors, also made his pitch for transit funding.
Liias said that coming out of this Great Recession the impacts to families will be great as people who have lost jobs, and especially those who faced long-term unemployment, will be playing catch-up for the earnings they missed out on. For many of those families, the impacts may mean no money for college or similar life-changing decisions.
He said the number of people with no options has increased, and that will spill over to transportation choices, as fewer people can afford to buy or drive cars and more people turn to transit as their way to get around. The transit cuts we have faced here in Snohomish County have been devastating, and for those who will turn to transit in the future, we want to do our best to have a strong system for them to use.
Liias sponsored the legislation that ultimately resulted in a car tab fees that Metro got to sustain its service the next two years. The bill was originally written to help Community Transit, but by the time the session was done, our agency was dropped.
Which led to one of my points I made to the legislators: even if the Legislature grants local option funding measures for transit agencies to take to voters to raise sales taxes or car tab fees or whatever, Community Transit may well end up with no new money. Voter sentiment is not keen on taxes these days, which is why Metro supporters did whatever they could to avoid going to voters for the car tab fee.
The hope for next year is another steady revenue source for transit. One that is distributed by formula so that agencies get their fair share based on the numbers they serve.
Twelve years ago, Washington state apportioned motor vehicle excise tax revenues to transit agencies based on how many riders we carried. That steady funding source helped offset the volatility of the sales tax, our other main revenue source. After Initiative 695, the Legislature eliminated MVET funding for transit agencies. Community Transit had to cut its service by 27 percent and laid off hundreds of workers. In September 2001, ten years ago, Snohomish County voters approved a sales tax increase that took this agency to the 0.9 percent level we are at today, the maximum under state law.
Of course, when recession hit in late 2007, the volatility of that single revenue source was put on display as we lost 18 percent of our funding that still hasn’t come back. In all, between 2007 and 2013, the funding that was expected from that source that never materialized will total $207 million.
So, we are hopeful for a new state plan for transportation funding, but we must accept the fact that there could be one or several ballot measures to secure transit funding, and it may be mixed with road infrastructure funding as well.
At least two groups are talking about this right now, the Connecting Washington Task Force assembled by Governor Gregoire to put together a plan for transportation funding that will be sent to the Legislature, and Transportation for Washington, an advocacy coalition that seeks to promote new transportation funding.
Community Transit and our riders have a great deal at stake in next year’s legislative session. We will keep you updated on news as it develops. As a public agency, we cannot organize a constituency or endorse a ballot measure, but we can answer questions on how various proposals might impact this agency.
What are your thoughts?