[Editor's Note: Today’s Op-Ed from Rob Johnson, Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition, is the latest  installment of PubliCola guest editorials by prominent local leaders.

We debuted our guest Op-Ed series with a piece by GOP Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna earlier this month. Earlier this week we published a piece co-written by Kate Joncas, President of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Starting next month, the guest Op-Eds will run exclusively on Sundays.]

Bakes Sales for Transit

Transportation Choices Coalition Executive Director, Rob Johnson

It’s 2010 and we are struggling to come out of the deepest recession since the 1930’s. In the Legislature, in editorial pages, and at kitchen tables around Washington people are debating the value of raising taxes to protect critical public services like education, health care, public safety, and social services. But deep cuts to transit service are often left out of this conversation.

Transit agencies around the state are dependent on sales taxes for revenue, and at a time when transit ridership is at or near all time highs, sales tax revenue is at an all time low. This is forcing many transit agencies into a tough financial bind. Community Transit in Snohomish County is instituting 17 percent cuts this year—including a plan that may eliminate all Sunday service. Pierce Transit’s grim projections may have them cutting as much as 60 percent of service. Whatcom County is contemplating 40 percent cuts, and Valley Transit was facing 50 percent cuts.

I say "was," because in February, voters in the Walla Walla area approved an 0.3% sales tax increase for Valley transit with 76 percent of voters in support. The Union Bulletin had this to say about the election: “Six months ago, when the idea of raising taxes was first brought up, we believed it was a mistake. We said, emphatically, voters will not approve raising the sales tax to fill Valley Transit's budget gap. But we were way—way—off.”

Over the last 18 months, roughly the duration of our current recession, Spokane Transit, Sound Transit, Skagit Transit, Cowlitz Transit, Island Transit, and now Valley Transit have all increased taxes to stave off cuts and grow service. When given the option of increased taxes versus cuts, voters are choosing to support transit.

Voters understand that transit is more than commuters going from point A to point B, it’s also critical for our aging population and those with disabilities. Plus, it’s a way for families to save money in tough economic times. All transit agencies in Washington have been working to avoid cutting service. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough. So later this year, Whatcom, Pierce and Intercity Transit in Thurston County are likely to ask voters to help save their bus service.

But right now their only option is the sales tax, while there may be better solutions to preserving transit service. Sales taxes are regressive, and the state has recently proposed a sales tax increase for the general fund. That’s why we need a new and better solution to fund our transit service. State Representative Marko Liias (D-21) sponsored a bill this year to provide transit agencies the authority to collect a $20 vehicle license fee, or up to $50 with voter approval. The authority would have only lasted for four years, a temporary fix to allow transit agencies to survive the recession. This would have offered a lifeline to agencies like Community Transit and King County Metro who have no options left but to cut service. That bill is now dead, but the Legislative Session isn’t over yet. It’s not too late for the Governor and the State Legislature to act to save transit service.

So if the state is unwilling to help struggling transit agencies, we will. We’ll be having bake to raise awareness, and maybe a few bucks, to prevent transit cuts. Hey, if work for schools, they can work for transit. On Monday March 1st from 7:00—9:00am we’ll be at the Aurora Village Transit Center (200th and Ashworth in Shoreline) and on Tuesday March 2nd from 7:00–9:00am we’ll be in downtown Tacoma (9th and Commerce). We’ll be selling cookies, brownies, pancake mix, and other goodies to commuters and passers-by. At the end of the morning, we plan to donate the proceeds to transit agencies and community organizations to fund discounted bus passes. It’s not as good as a new funding source (come on Governor and Legislature!), but we believe every little bit counts. And look out for a Seattle/King County bake sale coming to you in April since deep cuts in bus service are coming to King County too.

Right now, state transportation leaders are mapping out the next big transportation plan for our state. So far, the focus seems to be on road funding only. However, as transit levy votes and statewide surveys show, voters won’t accept a roads only option. We think that’s because about 700,000 trips per day are made on transit in Washington, yet transit receives only about 1 percent of our state’s transportation budget. Our state has a duty to provide more options for transit systems, and to expand state transportation dollars for transit. We can no longer allow the state to watch as bus riders are left stranded at their stops.

Rob Johnson is the Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition, a statewide non-profit working to bring Washington residents real opportunities to take a bus, catch a train, ride a bike, or walk. By taking the bus, train, walking, biking, or car/vanpooling you reduce our state’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the largest source of pollutants into Puget Sound and our local rivers and streams, increase your health and physical activity, and can save as much as $7,000 per year.