This Washington

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon: In 2011, I Will...

By State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon December 21, 2010

PubliCola asked 2010 newsmakers to tell us what their 2011 resolutions were. Newly elected progressive state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon is all about transit in the new year.

PubliCola asked a crew of 2010 newsmakers to write up their New Year’s resolutions for us. Not the waistline kind, but the political kind. What are they going to get done in 2011.

Yesterday, we debuted this year-end feature, with New Year’s To Dos from Maj. Margaret Witt (the Don't Ask Don't Tell plaintiff and repeal hero) and Republican King County Council Member Reagan Dunn.

And earlier today, we heard from U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-5, Eastern WA).

Next up, newly elected progressive state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, W. Seattle, Burien), who energized progressives as a long-shot young candidate to win a seat in the state house.

We knew Fitzgibbon, a 24-year-old Burien planning commissioner and former legislative aide to lefty state rep (now state senator) Sharon Nelson (D-34), was a complete wonk. In fact, it's why we enthusiastically endorsed him in both this year's primary (against a pack of other qualified Democrats) and in the general.

But man, this is the wonkiest New Year's resolution of all time. The assignment we gave everyone was to write up 200 to 300 words. Fitzgibbon, pledging to secure transit funding, goes over 1,000.
In the new year, the Legislature is regretfully likely to take actions that will have drastic, painful consequences for all of the citizens of our state. As usual, those who will be most impacted by the cuts are those who can least afford it—low-income people reliant on Basic Health or Medicaid for health care, students in our K-12 and higher education systems, working people for whom state-provided child care enables them to work.

Another set of cuts looms large, one for which the state bears responsibility in spite of the fact that the service is provided at the local level—deep cuts to the transit services that hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians rely on to get to work and school every day. For transit riders in King and Pierce counties, these cuts are likely to take place later this year (though Pierce County will receive a reprieve if voters approve a sales tax increase on February 8). For transit riders in Snohomish and Kitsap counties, the cuts have already begun. Community Transit in Snohomish County and Kitsap Transit have already eliminated all Sunday service and have eliminated or reduced service on many routes.

Residents of my district and many others will have a more difficult time, and in some cases an impossible time, using transit to move around our region, if these cuts take place. Vashon Islanders facing big reductions in car capacity on their ferry routes are relying more and more on the sparse bus service on their island to enable them to walk on to ferries, but cuts to Routes 118 and 119 would make it even harder. West Seattleites eagerly awaiting the long-promised arrival of RapidRide C will find it more difficult to make connections to their neighborhood routes, including Route 51, 53, and 55, and the core Route 21 could be terminated at the Alaska Junction.

As a transit rider myself, I’ve already been impacted, as have many of my neighbors in Burien, by the elimination of all midday service on Routes 121 and 122, the express routes connecting Burien to downtown. I most often find myself riding Route 120, connecting Burien to White Center to Delridge to downtown, and can attest that it is full at all hours of the day. Even on a core route like the 120, daytime frequency and late-night service would be vulnerable to the deep cuts that will be necessary if Metro’s revenue shortfall is not remedied by the legislature.

Like so many levels of government, our transit agencies are heavily reliant on the unstable sales tax, which has fallen faster than the economy at large. Some agencies have survived the drop by cutting service (Community and Kitsap Transit), some have survived by raising sales taxes to the maximum allowable level of 0.9 percent if they had not already reached that limit (Intercity Transit in Olympia and Valley Transit in Walla Walla), and Metro has survived by spending one-time money and using up reserves. All have increased fares, some dramatically.

Transit agencies’ taxing authority is set by the Legislature. Since Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 passed in 1999, the motor vehicle excise tax has gone away as a tool for transit agencies to fund service. To replace this revenue stream, the legislature authorized agencies to charge up to 0.9 percent to fund their operations and capital needs. Most of our region’s transit agencies, including Metro and Community Transit, are already at this cap. Traditionally, some help has come from the federal government to pay for capital needs just as bus replacement, particularly thanks to Sen. Patty Murray. However, the new Republican majority in the U.S. House is disinclined to support transit at the levels in past years.

For the legislature to sit idly by while deep service cuts strand the transit-dependent in our state would add insult to the many injuries likely to be caused by state budget cuts. Social service agencies, labor unions, advocates for low-income Washingtonians, and local governments agree that transit matters to their constituencies, particularly those hardest-hit by other cuts.

In addition, transit is vital for the economic recovery of our region. It enables our roadways to operate at higher efficiency so there is more room on the road for emergency vehicles and freight mobility, and it enables more workers to have access to job sites so they can contribute their skills to our state’s economy regardless of their ability to afford a vehicle.

And of course, transit is essential to reducing the environmental impact of transportation in our state. The transportation sector is by far the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington. It is also the biggest source of the stormwater runoff pollution that is degrading the health of Puget Sound and our other waterways. Providing the people of our region transportation choices other than single-occupancy vehicles is the single biggest thing we can to do reduce our climate impact and to begin to restore the health of Puget Sound.

Rescuing transit will require a concerted effort in the legislature to authorize new revenue tools for transit agencies. Some have suggested reauthorizing the motor vehicle excise tax, some have suggested a flat vehicle license fee, and some are interested in more creative funding solutions such as systemwide tolling and a vehicle-miles-traveled tax. I am agnostic about which option is best, but inaction is unacceptable.

In a year when the Legislature is going to cut so many services on which our constituents depend, this is one opportunity for us to take a step in the right direction to protect and restore a critical public service. Initiative 1053 constrains the Legislature from raising revenue for the state but does not prohibit us from authorizing new revenue tools for local governments such as transit agencies. In 2010, 77 percent of ballot measures nationwide to fund transit passed—voters, in Washington and across the country, have made clear that good transit service is a priority.

In the new year, I resolve to fight as hard as I can in the Legislature to protect our existing transit service and expand it where possible. We will need the support of a broad coalition of cities, counties, businesses, labor unions, social services advocates, environmentalists, and concerned citizens in order to be successful in this fight. I hope you will join us in this fight and contact your legislators and the governor to let them know why transit matters to you.—Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon

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