Mass transit picks up riders as gas prices rise

By Katie Murdoch, For The Herald

More and more people are riding the bus as the economy slowly recovers and gas prices skyrocket, transit officials and riders say.
Gas prices rose by more than 18 cents in February and could reach $5 per gallon by this summer, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
“It just makes sense,” said Lynnwood resident Vincent Ho, about riding transit.
Ho catches the bus at the Lynnwood Transit Center to attend school in Seattle. By riding the bus, Ho said, he saves money every day.
Verna Williams and Pam Schneider, two friends who live in Everett, rely on the Lynnwood Transit Center and agree gas prices have led them to drive only occasionally.
“We take the bus everywhere we go,” Schneider said.
There is an upswing in demand for riding transit, said Martin Munguia, a Community Transit spokesman.
The demand started to rise in late 2010, after a more than year-long dip in ridership.
That decline likely was because of the recession and higher unemployment rates, Munguia said.
Every time fuel prices jump, ridership spikes, as was the case in 2008, said Roland Behee, CT’s strategic planning unit manager. “If I could point to one single thing, it’d be gas prices,” Behee said.
Sound Transit is another agency seeing an increase in ridership on ST Express routes serving the South Snohomish corridors, spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.
This is likely because of the recovering economy and more people returning to work, Reason said.
The average weekday ridership on ST Express buses across the region rose 9.4 percent from 2010 to 2011. Routes serving Snohomish County commuters saw increases, too. Routes from Ash Way to Seattle rose by 34 percent, Evergreen to 79th in Seattle by 46 percent and Everett to Seattle by 13 percent.
While Sound Transit doesn’t analyze ridership against external factors like gas prices or number of cars per household, there is a case for using transit to save money, Reason said. She recommends visiting the Public Transportation website to use a “Fuel Savings Calculator” that shows commuters how much gas money they can save by opting to ride transit. The website can be found at transitsavingscalculator.
Ridership on Community Transit routes has not declined since service cuts, which could underscore the effect of gas prices, Munguia said.
“People have more incentive to make transit work for them, even if they have to adjust their schedules, catch the bus at a different location or make a transfer,” he said.
For those who do need to drive, websites such as can help savvy drivers find the cheapest pump. In Lynnwood last week, Costco and Arco were tied for the lowest price at $3.99 per gallon of regular unleaded. Chevron was the highest at $4.25 per gallon.

© 2012 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA

Transit funding stays parked in special session

By Jerry Cornfield, The Daily Herald

OLYMPIA — With the special session in its final hours, it’s clear cities, counties and us agencies won’t be getting a lifeline for new transportation funding they wanted from state lawmakers.
A bill allowing them to pursue an array of money-raising options, including a gas tax and motor vehicle excise tax, is parked in the state Senate and not expected to budge before the extra session ends Tuesday.
“There are just not the votes,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who as chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee would be the one to steer it through the process. “There was just general heartburn among members. It was just too heavy a lift.”
Haugen authored Senate Bill 6852 that squeaked through the Senate on a 25-24 vote Feb. 13. Democrats in the House then amended and approved it on a mostly party-line vote of 53-43.
But Haugen and other senators didn’t like the House version and the differences didn’t get resolved in the final days of the regular session or the extra session.
“Obviously it’s disheartening,” said Martin Munguia, spokesman for Community Transit. “If this bill passed out of the Legislature this year, it doesn’t guarantee us any money but it at least keeps the hope alive that we can make the case to the public.”
Without it, he said, the transit district must look to further reduce spending, cut service and raise fares to deal with budget shortfalls. Since 2010, the agency slashed service by 37 percent including elimination of Sunday service.
The bill proposed to add expanded options for generating revenue.
One piece would have let counties impose a local gas tax of one, two or three cents a gallon. Counties have such authority now but state law sets the amount at 10 percent of the current state fuel tax which would be 3.75 cents. Politically, that’s too high an amount for county leaders to pursue.
Another element would have increased the amount of car tab fees transportation benefit districts could collect from $20 to $40. The two chambers differed on whether the hike should need voter approval.
A major sticking point — and the piece of most importance to Community Transit and the Snohomish County Council — centered on the motor vehicle excise tax.
Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, proposed allowing counties to charge residents an excise tax of 1 percent on the value of their vehicles with the approval of voters. And if a county chose not to do this, a transit agency would be allowed to seek voter approval of a half-percent MVET of those living within the boundaries of their district.
For Community Transit, it could mean as much as $15 million a year, which is roughly equivalent to what’s been cut, Munguia said.
Haugen didn’t like this idea. She preferred only transportation benefit districts be able to impose an MVET. Her opposition didn’t soften and by March 23 — the 12th day of the month long special session — Haugen forecast its fate.
“In my mind, I don’t see how we can move it,” she said.
While that dampened hopes of Snohomish County Council members and Community Transit officials, they continued pressing hard to get the bill back into play.
Snohomish County Councilman Dave Gossett, who serves on the Community Transit Board, said he figured he could be ready to ask voters to approve an MVET in 2013 had that option been made available.
But it didn’t.
“I think where it leaves us is exactly where we are,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

© 2012 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA

Fragile economy can’t afford legislative inaction this year

From The Daily Herald – Saturday, February 25, 2012:
By Barbara Wright and Reid Shockey

For Washington’s economy to bounce back, it needs to get moving.


That means a transportation system that works for everyone. Businesses need to be able to get their goods to market. Employees need to be able to get to their jobs.

Unfortunately, Washington is a state filled with crumbling roads, unsafe bridges and overcrowded buses. Recently, a governor’s task force made up of members from across the state, including business, labor and environmental leaders, identified more than $21 billion in needed investments over the next decade to address our transportation crisis.

Despite how large the need is for investment and how critical transportation is to a healthy economy and the creation of jobs, there does not seem to be the will in Olympia this year to tackle it with a comprehensive funding plan.

While disappointing, the fact remains that we still have a fragile economy that is predicated on our ability to move people and goods efficiently.

For the health of our economy, inaction on transportation this year is not an option. Too many jobs in our state depend on a functional transportation system. Now is the time to invest in our roads and transit service, not abandon them.

It’s not too late. Two proposals that are still alive in Olympia can at least serve as a down payment on our transportation needs to help preserve and maintain the system.

The first proposal is focused on funding preservation and maintenance needs statewide. The legislation would raise a number of transportation user fees to pay for basic operations such as road safety and maintenance, ferry operations, some transit and the state patrol. The revenue sources being proposed are existing fees that haven’t kept up with inflation. For some of them, they haven’t been raised in over 30 years. Without this funding, we’ll be leaving more bridges and highways in disrepair. Our ferry system will continue losing money, likely leading to more cuts and higher fares.

In the end, without adequate funding for basic maintenance, we’ll lose jobs. Making critical transportation investments today will create jobs. Whether it’s repairing bridges or making safety improvements on U.S. 2, these projects create good-paying jobs here in the community.

A second bill moving through the Legislature will address many of our most immediate local transportation needs, including helping to save our struggling transit agencies by providing local jurisdictions more stable funding options for local transportation needs.

Transit is critical to keeping our economy running. Transit carries workers to their jobs and at the same time takes thousands of cars off the road, helping everyone by easing congestion. For thousands of seniors, the disabled, students, and low-income families, transit is the only way they are able to get around.

In Snohomish County, with the expansion and improving health of the aerospace industry, demand for transit is growing. In fact, Community Transit carries thousands of Boeing employees to work every day. These routes are some of CT’s most most utilized and productive routes. Yet, because of our bus system’s dependence on the volatile sales tax, Community Transit has had to cut service by 37 percent, including the elimination of all Sunday bus service. These cuts are leaving thousands stranded at the curb or forced onto our already gridlocked roads.

What’s more, providing local funding options for cities and counties will help us repair crumbling roads, provide safe routes to schools and fill potholes.

To build a truly balanced transportation system that works for everyone, it’s important we not delay. Local options to fund transit and local road maintenance this year are necessary this year.

These two proposals can put us in a position to plan and adequately fund the long-term transportation projects necessary to keep our economy moving. It’s great news that we look like we are finally on a path to economic recovery, but it’s still fragile.

Lawmakers in Olympia need to take positive action to get our economy moving, and a well-maintained and balanced transportation system does that.

Barbara Wright is board president of the Transportation Choices Coalition. Reid Shockey is president of the Snohomish County Committee for Improved Transportation.

Let voters drive decision

From the Daily Herald:

It is widely accepted by state lawmakers that Washington’s transportation system is in serious financial trouble. Yet a majority of them apparently remain unwilling to do anything meaningful about it.

A 10-year, $3.6 billion proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire has been stripped in the Senate of its main funding source: a $1.50 fee on each barrel of petroleum refined in Washington. The governor’s plan was only a down payment on the $21 billion a task force of public- and private-sector leaders says is needed over the next decade to support the economy, protect jobs and create new ones.
Asked what she plans to do about it, a clearly frustrated Gregoire said Friday, “It’s not about what am I going to do. It’s about what are (lawmakers) going to do.”

Here’s an option: With the governor’s plan to ask voters for a three-year, half-penny increase in the sales tax this spring all but dead, put a transportation-funding package before voters in November — one that not only addresses highway projects, operations and maintenance, but the severe underfunding of local transit and the ferry system.

Conventional wisdom in Olympia has been that such a proposal wasn’t possible this year, because it would be impossible to get voters to approve two tax measures. Since they probably won’t be asked to raise the sales tax to buy back a portion of pending budget cuts, that barrier doesn’t apply.
To lawmakers who fear rejection of a transportation package: Voters might surprise you. They did in 2005, when they soundly rejected an initiative to repeal a 9.5-cent increase in the gas tax that paid for a variety of major projects.

A strong advertising campaign would have to back a ballot measure, requiring strong support from business, labor, environmental groups and others. It would likely need to be heavily weighted toward a gas tax, which buys less than it used to because it doesn’t increase with inflation and because people are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

But it’s not a certain loser. Historically, voters have been supportive of funding transit, which has taken severe hits in recent years because of its dependence on dwindling sales tax revenue. Community Transit will have cut service by a devastating 37 percent in the past 20 months when another round of cuts goes into effect next week.

Ferries, which have been subsidized out of highway funds for years, stand to undergo severe service cuts, too, including the elimination of some routes.
Inaction on transportation is too great a risk to the state’s long-term prosperity. Lawmakers should put a fall transportation vote on the table.

When will we get serious?

From The Daily Herald:

Maybe it’s a nod to political reality. But the apparent unwillingness of the governor and legislative leaders to embrace a bold, long-term transportation plan suggests this state is too timid to effectively address its economic future.
Gov. Chris Gregoire last week unveiled an extremely modest 10-year plan simply to maintain existing roads, bridges and ferries, at a cost of $3.6 billion. Three-quarters of that money would come from a $1.50 fee on each barrel of oil refined in the state, an idea that’s already drawn howls of protest from Republicans — and soon, no doubt, the oil companies.
Legislative Republicans argue the fee would raise the price of gasoline at the pump, which they worry could threaten the economic recovery. Such thinking, however, ignores the certainty that inadequate transportation maintenance, let alone a lack of new projects to ease congestion and facilitate the movement of freight, is a long-term economic killer.
A top-flight task force of representatives from business, state and local government, labor and environmental interests has recommended a $21 billion package of investments over 10 years that directly addresses jobs and economic growth. Even that was trimmed down substantially from what leaders throughout the state agree is really needed.
Rather than including a specific funding plan, the Connecting Washington Task Force laid out a menu of revenue options, many of which would require either two-thirds legislative support or (more likely) the approval of voters. The governor decided against making that kind of ask this year, given that she already has proposed asking voters this spring for a three-year, half-cent increase in the sales tax to stem cuts to education, corrections and social services.
Perhaps that’s prudent. The economy’s footing is improving, but it’s hardly solid. One tax vote will be tough. Two might well be impossible.
But the more we delay getting serious about adequately funding the highways, bridges, transit agencies and ferries that form the backbone of our economy, the more we delay our own future prosperity — and undermine our quality of life. A robust, high-functioning transportation system is crucial to keeping Washington competitive with other states in drawing top employers, and maintaining our global edge as the nation’s leading exporter.
The necessary long-term investments are substantial. Current revenue isn’t nearly keeping up. Transit agencies, which depend on sales taxes for far too much of their funding, have cut service drastically, just as demand is increasing. The governor’s proposal will only stem some of the bleeding.
As a state, we must engage in a pivotal discussion about our future, one that involves not just transportation, but education from preschool through college.
Will we make the investments necessary to build the future we all want, and that our children deserve? If so, when?


Right and wrong focus in governor’s address

From Tri-City Herald:

Gov. Chris Gregoire is sure to come under fire for proposing a massive spending program while the Legislature struggles with $1 billion deficit.

In her State of the State address last week, the governor called on state lawmakers to pass a 10-year, $3.6 billion transportation package.

The proposal might ultimately prove to be overly ambitious for these tough times. Her plan to add a $1.50 per barrel tax on oil that’s processed in the state raises real concerns about potential harm to the state’s economic recovery.

But Gregoire is right on a couple of counts: Maintaining the state’s transportation infrastructure is crucial to our future economic success, and additional delays in dealing with this critical need will only compound the problem.

Last year, the Washington State Transportation Commission released a comprehensive report assessing statewide transportation needs through 2030.

The total price tag, including local governments and transit agencies, was $175 billion to $200 billion over the next 20 years, according to the commission. Gregoire’s plan represents a small fraction of the need, but it would be a start.

Making matters worse, revenue from fuel taxes no longer can fill the need, and the gap is only going to widen as electric cars and hybrids gain in popularity.

Gregoire’s proposal attempts to address the issue by recommending a $100 fee be added to electric vehicles. But that’s more about fairness than revenue at this stage.

The governor estimates her 10-year plan will create about 5,500 jobs per year. But it’s a mistake to focus on the direct construction jobs. A first-rate transportation system is an economic driver for the entire economy.

According to the transportation commission, 64 percent of the jobs in our state are linked to freight mobility. If that seems exaggerated, ask a farmer or any other producer about the necessity of getting goods to market.

We have some concerns about other aspects of Gregoire’s State of the State address. We would have liked to hear more about fundamental reforms that would help put state spending on a sustainable track.

It also is the wrong time to ask the Legislature to take up same-sex marriage.

The budget is in crisis, with additional cuts in K-12 school funding and in the state’s contribution to higher education all but certain. Social programs that serve our neediest citizens are in jeopardy.

We’re whittling away at the very programs needed to restore the state’s economy. In the vernacular, that’s called eating your seed corn. It’s bad policy for obvious reasons.

Under the state’s domestic partnership law, same-sex couples have most of the same legal rights as married couples.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s hard to make the case that gay couples are in crisis given the legal protections the state already has enacted.

Gay marriage is the sort of emotional and polarizing issue that keeps lawmakers up at night. When our legislators can’t sleep this session, we want them thinking about restoring lost school days.

But we can’t fault the underlying theme of Gregoire’s address. Investing in our future is the key to success — even in a down economy

Read more here:

Governor pushes transportation investment

By Mike Lindblom

Gov. Chris Gregoire urged state lawmakers to raise $3.6 billion for highway maintenance in her State of the State address Tuesday morning, and passionately argued for additional investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Gov. Chris Gregoire urged state lawmakers to raise $3.6 billion for highway maintenance in her State of the State address Tuesday morning, and passionately argued for additional investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“We have got to step up to proper maintenance of our very valuable transportation system, from highways and bridges to ferries and city streets,” she said.

Ferries in particular are at risk, partly because of insufficient maintenance budgets in recent years, she said. “Without new funding our ferry system will not survive as we know it,” Gregoire said, citing a $1.3 billion shortfall for ferries.

The new money, which lawmakers could approve largely through a series of transportation-related fees, would create 5,500 jobs, she said. Gregoire proposed a $1.50 fee per barrel of oil produced in the state.

“Our oil companies are getting all the profit and leaving us with the bill. We can do better,” she said.

Cities and county governments would have additional options to raise money for road maintenance and for transit, she said.

Her address in Olympia didn’t specifically discuss a potential 2012 statewide ballot measure for highways and ferries — something Gregoire has strongly advocated in recent months. But she said there needs to be a “serious conversation” with voters.

“Educate ourselves and educate the public, and then build a better transportation infrastructure than the other guys,” she said, invoking Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as a proponent of investing in the future. A ballot measure could raise money far beyond the $3.6 billion cited in Tuesday’s speech.

Gregoire cited I-405 east of Seattle, a new 144-car ferry, Interstate 5 at Joint Base Lewis McChord, the I-5 Columbia River Crossing from Vancouver to Portland, Snoqualmie Pass and Highway 167 southeast of Seattle as crucial priorities, especially for trade — $80 billion in cargo passes just through Snoqualmie Pass per year, she said.

Money from a series of gas-tax and car-tab-fee increases last decade is running out, and Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond has warned that roads and ferries will deteriorate without another infusion of cash. The state is grappling with other problems this year, including a budget shortage that will threaten cuts in human services, as well as a rapid increase in tuition at public universities.

Cory Curtis, a spokesman for the governor, said Monday it’s unlikely that two-thirds of lawmakers can be rallied to support a statewide tax increase, because of restrictions under Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1053, so that would need to go to the voters. But fees, to be earmarked for maintenance, could be enacted by simple majority, according to Connecting Washington, the governor’s transportation task force.

The 31-member task force recommended a $21 billion option, down from the original $50 billion that officials said would tackle all the state’s known transportation needs.

The Legislature will probably look at an overall strategy worth $10 billion to $15 billion, House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said in an interview posted at Tuesday morning. Gas taxes will be part of that, and there will be a greater emphasis on tolls, she said. Toll revenue in the Puget Sound area would be directed to corridors that were part of a failed 2007 highway ballot measure, she said, but not be applied to Highway 395 in north Spokane, she told TVW.

The Legislature last year almost passed several fees to aid ferries, the State Patrol and other purposes. The bill included a surcharge on new studded tires and would have increased the $25 renewal fee to $40 for a five-year driver’s license. Connecting Washington last month published a new menu to raise up $3.4 billion over 10 years, led by a proposed increase of up to $50 in annual car-tab fees.

How did Washington get in this bind?

Lawmakers passed gas-tax hikes and car-tab fees in the mid-2000s but relied heavily on bond debt to maximize the number of buildable projects — 300 finished to date.

But the gas-tax income to support this leveraged plan ran below predictions, because of the recession, improved miles per gallon, and an end to the 20th-century trend of increasing car travel. More than 90 percent of the tax will be locked up in bond payments by 2015 while some basic work, such as redecking I-5 in Seattle, goes unfunded.

Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts, a member of Connecting Washington and the Sound Transit board, said he will suggest a retrofit of the I-5 Snohomish River bridge, to reduce bottlenecks between Everett and Marysville. A second priority is more commuter buses to the Boeing plant and other industries in southwest Everett.

Michael Ennis, transportation analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center, said any ballot measure ought to ensure that motorists’ money go entirely to road capacity.

He said lawmakers should reject suggestions to create a statewide funding stream for transit, and he criticized the state’s gas-tax compacts with tribal governments, which receive a discount worth roughly $30 million a year.

The looming campaign over road taxes brings to mind the Roads & Transit proposal that failed in 2007. Then, in 2008, a Sound Transit-only sequel passed, with help from younger Barack Obama voters.

A new east-west “Cross-Base Highway” at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, probably the most disputed piece in Roads & Transit, is not being considered in a 2012 package, Curtis said.

Eyman said in a fundraising message Monday that he will work to defeat a state transportation measure.

“We firmly believe that when voters said no to two cents on a can of pop [in 2010], it should have been obvious to everyone that voters can’t stomach higher taxes, especially now when the economy and family budgets continue to struggle,” he wrote.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631


On Twitter @mikelindblom