Tuesday, January 15, 2013

To Add Bus Service, We Need New Funding

The Washington State Legislature began its 2013 session this week, so it’s a good time to review how bus service in Snohomish County is funded. Community Transit will be asking legislators for new funding, or authority to seek additional funding, so it can add bus service after several years of cuts.

Community Transit is a special purpose municipal corporation, separate from the county, cities or state. It was created by voters in 1976 under state authority to provide public transportation service to Snohomish County residents. Our service area, or public transportation benefit area (PTBA), includes unincorporated Snohomish County and all cities in the county except for Everett, which has its own transit agency.

Service is paid for by a 0.9 percent retail sales tax – the state maximum – in those jurisdictions. That’s nine cents on a $10 taxable purchase. In many parts of the county, the sales tax is above 9 percent, so Community Transit gets about one-tenth of that sales tax collected.

When the recession hit in 2008, sales tax revenues fell as people in the county reduced their buying, especially on big-ticket items like homes and cars. Tax revenue for transit dropped 18 percent that first year and pretty much stayed at that level for four years. In real dollars, that meant about $14 million less money each year.

After cutting internal costs, reducing administrative staff and freezing wages, Community Transit implemented two service cuts, reducing bus service by 37 percent and laying off 206 employees. Those painful actions have hopefully put the worst behind us; now it is a matter of funding new service.

Meanwhile, modest fare increases help keep pace with inflation. The $1.75 fare for local bus service pays for less than 20 percent of the cost of a local trip. The extra 25-cent increase in February will bring that farebox recovery up to about 21 percent.

While people’s buying habits have started to improve, 2012 revenues were still $10 million below 2007 levels. At this rate, it will take several years until there is enough guaranteed sales tax revenue to add significant service.

That is why new funding is needed to add service.

This year we are asking the state for direct funding for transit operations. That may be a pie-in-the-sky request, but before Initiative 695, the state provided directly about 30 percent of transit service funding. Today, that state funding is about 2 percent, some of which comes through competitive grants that are not guaranteed.

We are also asking the state for a local option – the authority to ask our voters to fund service. Two years ago, the state gave King County Metro authority for a $20 car tab fee that kept Metro from making some major service cuts. We’ll see what legislators are willing to support in terms of transit funding this year.


  1. Can you post information regarding how much the commuter fares go towards the total cost of those trips? I know that this wouldn't be easy to implement, but so many of these local routes are served by very expensive and large coaches, when something smaller would fit the need more appropriately. For example, route 111 could be served with a minivan...it doesn't need a full-size bus. There are probably ADA compliance concerns, but you could buy private vehicles for people with special needs with the money saved by using appropriately sized transportation.

  2. Good questions, Daryl. Commuter service to Seattle and UW has a higher fare recovery rate (about 40%) than local service for two reasons: We charge higher fares for these routes, based on the fact they travel longer distances; and there are limited trips so those buses are more full. If we ran those same trips all day it's likely all trips wouldn't be as full and the fare recovery rate would go down.

    As for smaller buses, we already do match bus sizes to ridership as best as possible. For instance, Route 111 uses 30-foot buses, the smallest we have. But there are other reasons why bus size wouldn't necessarily save us money.

    First, about 70% of trip costs are labor-related -- the driver, dispatcher, supervisors, etc. that we need to have while buses are in operation. Second, money to buy buses comes primarily from federal grants that cannot be used to pay employees, so those "sunk costs" are not figured into daily operating expenses.

    Finally, to operate efficiently, our buses do not stay on one route, they "interline," meaning a certain bus may serve one route for a trip then serve another route the next trip. There may be a low ridership trip followed by a high ridership trip, so the bus must have capacity for the more popular trips. Once we have a bus in service, the cost per trip goes down with each paying rider, so the more people we can get on a bus, the higher our farebox recovery.

  3. Martin has you company ever considered trimming down the number of administrative jobs and using that money to pay more divers and get thousands of more cars off the road....I noticed on your web site your company has around 120 job titles for around 30 fixed routes...my question to you Martin is why a company that has shrunk by 35% has not lost any jobs except the actual drivers?
    I'm disappointed that my taxes are used in this way,they should be used to put the maximum amount of buses on the road as possible.

  4. The bottom line is more service is necessary. People depend on this type of public transportation and cutting back is hurting those who have no other way to get around. There must be a creative way to make it happen. Perhaps the size buses used or cost paid for buses can be cut somehow.

  5. Community Transit operates 46 bus routes - 26 within Snohomish County and 20 from Snohomish County to downtown Seattle and UW.

    The agency laid off 206 employees when it cut service. While the majority of those positions were drivers, mechanics and maintenance workers, 36 were administrative office jobs, including two executives.

    1. martin shouldn't the same percentage of administration jobs be cut as drivers,mechanics and maintenance?your numbers tell me only 15% of jobs lost where executive...that is if your telling the truth.

  6. During the layoffs, the ratio of represented (union) to non-represented staff stayed the same, approximately 75% to 25%.

    1. I find it hard to believe that is the truth martin....Is it true CT has more than 10 HR employees for about 600 employees?...I work for a city that that participates into paying sales tax to your company, we have about 120 employees and at any givin time up to 60 temporary employees so if we used community transit math we should have 3 or 4 HR people... here is the best part Martin...are you sitting down....here we go....guess how many people are in our HR dept?. ...oh wait it's not people it's a person...yes one very capable employee....it seems your company is very top heavy at the expense of all your riders and people that pay taxes in Sno. Co.

      disappointed rider

  7. martin are you saying that 75 to 25 ratio is union/non union ratio? I asked a driver and she told me there are about 240 drivers....so are you telling us there are only about 100 non union jobs at community transit? because I noticed on your web site under job description there are more than 100 job titles...do you guys really have 10 HR employees? that's either incompitance or overkill...I agree with the person who replied before me...the math don't add up.

    I would really be interested if you can respond to this one Martin

  8. I would also like to hear the answer to this question...I watched the video addressing the state for funding and the chairman said 200 employees were laid off,I believe he said you now have 500 employees,so does that mean there are more non driving jobs than actual driving jobs? does it really take that many administration job to keep your company running?
    the previous comments makes me curious if you really do tell the truth to the public on this blog,to the tax payers who pay these wages