Community Transit cuts will hurt; just ask a rider like Crystal

Crystal Alcorn waited for a bus Tuesday morning on Evergreen Way. It was cold, a nippy 34 degrees.

She wasn’t alone. The 23-year-old, who lives on Everett’s Casino Road, sat at the bus stop with one hand on a stroller. She tucked in a blanket covering her 7-month-old daughter.

They were headed to Mill Creek for an appointment, Alcorn said. There was just enough time to ask her about a coming hardship.

In June, Community Transit will suspend all Sunday and holiday service.

“I don’t have any other option,” Alcorn said.

Often on Sundays, she and her daughter take two buses — one Everett Transit, the other Community Transit — to Sultan to visit her grandmother, Myrna Lampi.

“It’s unfair to everybody. How are people going to get to work?” she said.

Along with changing some weekday routes, the Sunday move is expected to close a $5 million gap this year and a $11 million shortfall in 2011.* The cuts, approved Thursday by the agency’s board of directors, will help fill a big hole in Community Transit’s budget. Tom Pearce, a spokesman for the agency, said last week that sales-tax income, the main source of operating revenue, has fallen 18 percent in the past two years.

I called Pearce on Tuesday for an explanation. I’m finding it hard to reconcile what I see on the street, big modern-looking new Swift buses and state-of-the-art Swift bus stops, with the fact that Community Transit will soon end Sunday service entirely. Community Transit’s new Swift service looks to me like a luxury this community can’t afford.

The rapid diesel-electric hybrid Swift buses run from Everett Station up Pacific Avenue and down Highway 99 to Aurora Village in Shoreline. Community Transit last year said the Swift program cost $32 million — about half for 15 buses and half for 24 stations, 12 on each side of the route. The stations all have electronic ticketing, information kiosks and large shelters. Regular Community Transit routes still operate on Highway 99.

Why spend more than $30 million on what could be seen as frills, when an $11 million cut in the form of no Sunday service and other changes is needed?

Think of those two piles of money as proverbial apples and oranges. Pearce said the Swift money, largely federal dollars, could not be spent on operations.

“With Swift, the financing was capital money, it could only be spent on capital projects — buying buses and building stations,” he said. “Half the money was coming from grant sources. We get the future of public transportation at a fraction of the cost.”

He also said the project was well underway before the depth of the recession was clear. Putting construction of the stations on hold because of the poor economy would not have served Snohomish County in the long run, he said.

I get what he’s saying, but it’s too bad a sensible way can’t be found to funnel some of those federal millions into helping people like Crystal Alcorn — people with no cars and no choice but to ride the bus.

June 13 will be the first day without Sunday service, which also means no Sunday Dial-a-Ride, known as DART. Community Transit logs about 35,000 boardings on weekdays, and 8,400 on Sundays. Fares will also go up in June by 25 cents on noncommuter routes. Pearce said fares will rise to $1.75 for adults.

Sunday travelers will still be able to get to Seattle on Sound Transit buses, Pearce said.

“It’s very painful to make these cuts,” he said. “People rely on the bus seven days a week. We are maintaining the heart of our service the other six days. That leaves us in a strong position to rebuild.”

Rebuilding has happened before. Community Transit canceled Sunday buses in 2000, after voters in 1999 approved Initiative 695. The Tim Eyman-drafted initiative deeply cut fees for car-license tabs. Sunday service was restored as soon as possible, in 2002, with a rise in sales-tax revenues, Pearce said. He vowed that this time, too, Sunday service will top the list when money is available.

That promise is little help for Alcorn and others who ride Community Transit on Sundays.

At Everett Station, 52-year-old Alvin Hardy said he expects churchgoing will suffer. Joshua Hollingsworth, 28, often takes buses from his Smokey Point-area home into Everett.

“On Sundays, I come to see family,” Hollingsworth said.

Essential? What do you think?

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

* This article was corrected since it was first posted online to accurately state Community Transit’s budget shortfall.

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