Community Transit and the City of Everett are officially looking into the details of one transit agency in Snohomish County.
Last week each group’s governing body approved a joint study of consolidating transit operations. The agencies are splitting the estimated $96,800 that will pay for the study and an independent facilitator.
Often called a merger, it would officially be an annexation of the city into Community Transit’s taxing authority and thus its services. Everett voters would have the final say.
“The potential here is to create space to have the technical conversations,” said Everett Deputy Mayor Nick Harper, who is leading the city’s half of the work. “We’re just at the start of the work.”
Community Transit last had an annexation vote in 2008, when over 55% of voters in the Cathcart, Clearview and Maltby areas rejected it. In 1997, voters in the Eastmont, Silver Firs and Tulalip areas agreed to join the agency’s taxing district and transit service area, but voters in the Cathcart, Clearview and Machias areas also then rejected it.
A final report to the Community Transit board and Everett City Council is due by mid-2023, according to the agreement.
After that, the city council can decide to put annexation or its own sales tax increase on the ballot for voters, or do nothing.
Community Transit CEO Ric Ilgenfritz, who is leading his agency’s consolidation work, said the potential system network is a highlight of the study. Roland Behee, Community Transit’s planning and development director, said the mutual focus is the “best possible transit future for all.”
Bus service now has some redundancies, such Community Transit’s Swift Blue bus rapid transit and Everett Transit’s Route 7 along Evergreen Way. The Swift Blue line’s frequency is higher but mostly follows Highway 99. Everett Transit Route 7 runs between Everett Community College and the Everett Mall.
True to its name, Everett Transit exclusively operates within city limits with a bit larger service area for paratransit. It’s smaller, with a budget for 141 employees that includes union representation from Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 883 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 113.
Under the current agreement that ends this year, Everett Transit drivers start at $26.47 an hour, maintenance employees $24.58, and inspectors $38.93. Paratransit operators start at $20.34.
Community Transit has a budget next year for 824 employees that includes collective bargaining agreements with ATU 1576 and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).
Starting pay for Community Transit bus drivers after graduating from a 10-week training period is $26.93 an hour. Mechanics start at $41.81 an hour, and transportation supervisors $44.11 an hour.
Everett is the only city in Snohomish County that is not part of Community Transit, which operates bus, paratransit and vanpool services.
For years revenue growth hasn’t kept pace with rising costs, city leaders have said — and budgets have shown.
With Everett facing a structural budget deficit in which inflation is higher than revenue gains, city leaders have looked at major moves to reduce expenses. That has included recent discussions of moving the fire department into a regional authority, forming a parks district, leasing or selling city properties, and ceding the transit agency.
Everett Transit has a separate budget from the main pot of money that funds the fire, parks and police departments. It’s supposed to generate revenue to support itself, which has at times meant service and staff cuts.
Everett’s Rethink Transit process resulted in a public survey that laid out three options for the city-run agency: Keep funding as is and slowly and steadily need to reduce service, grow through consolidation, or grow through a potentially smaller sales tax and keep it in city control.
The Everett City Council unanimously approved the city’s commitment to the study during Wednesday’s city council meeting.
Before the vote, Councilmember Jeff Moore said Community Transit is good at moving people quickly but Everett Transit serves “the people who have the least access to transit.”
“There’s a heart in this in what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said.
Councilmember Liz Vogeli, who has been skeptical about consolidation, asked staff to work “just as diligently” studying what’s required to keep Everett Transit in city control.
“There is a perception that many folks in our city and leadership roles are definitely gung-ho (for) consolidation,” she said.
Councilmember Scott Murphy, who did not seek re-election this year, also said the city shouldn’t eliminate keeping city-run transit services with “a more modest (sales tax) increase.”
“I don’t want to imply that we’ve left the other option behind,” he said.
Mayor Cassie Franklin said the city demonstrates the value of its transit department through daily operations and long-range plans.
“We are planning for the long-term success of that organization,” Franklin said.
Community Transit’s board of directors, comprised of elected officials from the governments within its district, also unanimously approved the joint study framework Thursday. Jon Nehring, Marysville’s mayor, said transparency in the process would be key based on the agency’s experience successful vote for a 0.3% sales tax increase in 2015. Everett Transit currently collects a lower sales tax rate.
“That was a tough, tough thing to ask for,” Nehring said. “We’ve already gone to the voters for our big package and we don’t want to do that again.”
Everett City Council President Brenda Stonecipher was adamant that Everett Transit needed better funding either way.
“We simply must fund public transportation,” she said.
Board governance was a concern for Moore, who did not seek re-election to the city council. State law dictates proportional representation based on population. Today, there are nine voting members on Community Transit’s board: two from the Snohomish County Council, two from cities with at least 35,000 residents, two from cities with less than 15,000 residents, and three from cities with populations between those.
Board representation would be identified by an ad hoc committee within 90 days of voters approving annexation, Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia said.
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