Plan to return Sunday bus service floated

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are detouring Community Transit away from imposing an unpopular car tax in order to bring back bus service on Sundays.

Instead, they would let the transit agency ask voters to approve a temporary sales tax hike to pay for restoring service eliminated since the onset of the recession.

Community Transit could seek an increase of up to three-tenths of a penny under a bill backed by the House Transportation Committee on Friday. This increase could last for four years or until Dec. 31, 2018, whichever comes first.

The Senate Transportation Committee approved similarly worded legislation earlier in the week prompting the House panel to follow suit.

Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, who is guiding the bill through the Senate, said some committee members balked at pushing added transit costs onto vehicle owners. A sales tax offered a more politically acceptable way to generate the revenue, he said.

“I think we got it to a place that is the best we can hope for,” he said of the change.

Community Transit leaders originally asked lawmakers for authority to impose a 1 percent excise tax on motor vehicles with voter approval. That’s gone.

Under the revamped bill, the transit agency could increase the local portion of the sales tax up to 0.3 percent with voter approval. This would add 3 cents to a $10 purchase.

The district already receives 0.9 percent of a cent in area sales tax and this would increase its share temporarily. Or 9 cents on every $10 purchase.

“The change of funding source from an MVET to an additional sales tax was necessary to get the bill passed out of committee,” Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia wrote in an email.

“We are working with our legislative leaders in both chambers to find additional funding so we can provide more bus service to our customers,” he said. “We are pleased the transit funding bill remains in consideration.”

Community Transit is reaching out to lawmakers for options to help it deal with the effects of declining revenues and unabated demand for service.

Sales tax dollars account for about 60 percent of its income with fares covering another 21 percent, according to district officials. Sales tax revenues plummeted in the recession and are not back to pre-recession levels.

The transit district has raised fares three times since then, most recently Feb. 1. There also have been layoffs and cuts in service, including elimination of bus trips on Sundays and holidays.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, who authored the Community Transit bill in the House, said the changes solve the short-term challenges and keep the agency afloat.

“This session I want to find any form of relief that we can,” he said.

House Bill 1953 and Senate Bill 5773 can be found online at www.leg.wa.gov.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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