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Pierce Transit's plans to eliminate bus routes irk taxpaying cities

By Brian Beckley

Staff writer

Throughout the meeting of representatives from the small cities of Pierce County, the same refrain came up over and over in reference to Pierce Transit’s plans to eliminate bus routes to and from their cities.

“Don’t tax us unless you’re going to give us service,” Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson said.

“Why are we paying for this?” Orting Deputy Mayor Joe Pestinger asked.

“They can’t just shut this part of the county out,” Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas added.

“They’re just ignoring the outlying communities,” Bonney Lake Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman said. “If they can’t do it, something is wrong somewhere.”

The 90-minute meeting April 15, called and hosted by the city of Orting, brought together 13 representatives from the cities of Orting, Bonney Lake, Buckley, Steilacoom and DuPont, who all share one thing in common: They re set to lose bus service to and/or around their communities if Pierce Transit goes ahead with its recent cost-cutting proposals.

And they’re not happy about it, especially considering together the cities estimate they send $4 million in sales tax revenue to the transit authority each year.

“You’ve got a zone that’s underserved and is paying a pretty whopping amount of money,” DuPont Councilmember Larry Wilcox said.

Looking to get their message heard, the small cities agreed Thursday to band together and study their options, including the possibility of de-annexing from the bus service’s taxing district and potentially going it alone.

“I’d love to get our service,” Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson said Friday. “But if we can’t get it we have to take care of our citizens.”

Bonney Lake estimates that it pays $2 million per year to Sound Transit and with maps showing a total elimination of routes throughout East Pierce County including the 407 through Bonney Lake and South Prairie, the 406 to Buckley and the 408 through Sumner.

The shuttle from the Bonney Lake Park and Ride to the Sumner Sounder station would not be eliminated.

Pierce Transit is presently facing a budget gap of $68 million by 2012 and has stated the 0.6 percent sales taxes it collects from member cities is not enough to sustain the current levels of service. The organization is proposing an additional sales tax of 0.3 percent, though even if that plan passes, several routes would still be eliminated, including those around Bonney Lake and out to Buckley.

Representatives in Orting said they have not had bus service since 2001, though they still pay approximately $350,000 a year into the district.

“I’ve been here 10 years and I haven’t seen a bus,” Orting councilmember Stanley Holland said. “You’re taking my money but I have no bus at all.”

The representatives agreed to band together and send a collective note expressing their displeasure to Pierce Transit. They also agreed to share information and study their options.

Bonney Lake, for example, is pushing ahead with studies on how to de-annex and perhaps set up its own shuttle service around the city, something Johnson said the city could do for an estimated $800,000 per year, well below the amount of sales tax money the city sends Pierce Transit’s way every 12 months.

Bonney Lake’s situation is different from most of the small cities. While most of the cities said they are looking for ways to get commuters to and from their cities, Bonney Lake representatives talked more about getting around their city, though Councilmember Laurie Carter highlighted the difficulty in using the Pierce Transit system as it is, let alone if routes are canceled.

Carter said she works in Auburn, nine miles from her home, but the journey would take her more than two hours on Pierce Transit.

Carter also said that with Bonney Lake’s growing commercial district along state Route 410, teenagers and low-income workers around the city need ways to get to jobs.

“All these local routes are going to be taken away,” she said. “Kids need to be able to get to jobs in town or to other things.”

Bonney Lake has already begun reviewing its legal options.

“We’re definitely looking at all the options,” Johnson said. “Our residents are on us all the time about transit.”

Johnson said there are still questions about the ability of a city to leave a taxing district after it has annexed in, but said it was certainly something the city was considering attempting.

Johnson also said the meeting of the small cities was a good step in an attempt to get Pierce Transit’s attention, adding that working together adds to the “credibility” of their plight.

“We need to have leverage,” he said. “Now we just have to see where we go from here.”

For more information on Pierce Transit’s funding proposals and potential route eliminations visit http://www.pttomorrow.org.

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