The Statewide Transit Funding Crisis

By Beau Morton of the Transit Rider’s Union

As transit riders, it can be hard to look beyond the particular stops and routes that we use most often to the larger transit issues in our state. Time and again riders have shown the willingness and ability to rally around service restructures and save those most-used routes and stops. But throughout Washington over the past decade, transit agencies have been forced to deal with constantly declining revenue, anti-transit legislatures, and transportation budgets built entirely around funding the building of roads.

While most states allocate on average about 17% of their transportation budgets for transit, in Washington it’s only 2%. The passage of Initiative 695 in 1999 reduced the state’s motor vehicle excise tax, which up to then had provided about one-third of King County Metro’s total revenue. Since then, Metro has tried to make up the difference with fare increases – including an 80% increase over the past five years – cutting and restructuring routes, and cutting drivers’ recovery time between runs. The burden for funding what should be treated as a public good has been shifted more and more onto those who ride, and, through the sales tax, onto those who buy: sales tax, which now accounts the majority of Metro’s funding, both hits the poorest the hardest and leaves Metro vulnerable to increasingly volatile economic conditions.

This year in the state legislature there have been several transportation funding bills – the best of which is HB 1959 – which include local funding options for cities, counties and transit agencies. Allowing these local governments and agencies the ability to raise taxes on their own without having to go to the state for funding will be an absolutely crucial part of saving and improving our transit systems.

And yet, these bills are currently languishing in the legislature, and it’s looking more and more like any transportation bill that does make it out of the House and Senate will focus on highway projects. The statewide transportation package recently proposed by House Transportation chair Judy Clibborn contains $3.9 billion just to start new highway projects, while leaving only $675 million for cities and towns throughout the state to invest in their transportation infrastructure and transit systems. This 20th century way of thinking will not effectively answer 21st century problems, and it is past time that our state’s transportation funding reflects this reality.

For decades, our state legislators have faced organized industry and lobbyists who favor big highway projects. They make themselves heard in Olympia. Our state legislators have also faced an organized and vocal anti-tax movement. Our state legislators have heard from vocal anti-transit activists who think that our state’s transit agencies should recover 100% of their revenue at the fare box. What our state legislators have not heard from are organized, informed transit riders. If we are to prevent the huge cuts that have recently happened in Snohomish and Pierce counties, if we are to prevent the looming 17% service cuts to King County Metro, including 65 routes facing elimination, we need to organize and think beyond the routes and stops we use most often. We need to be informed and concerned about the funding issues for C-TRAN in Vancouver, Spokane Transit, Pierce Transit, and other agencies around the state. Their funding issues are our issues, their cuts are our cuts, and in nearly every case those we elect to represent us have failed at providing the resources needed for adequate transit. You are transit’s best advocate in this state, and the legislators need to hear you.

(Originally published in  The Transit Reader)

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