Community Transit levy offers voters a good deal

Voters will decide in the primary election whether to deepen their longstanding commitment to offering bus service that improves lives and builds communities.

The public should say yes to the Community Transit’s proposal for a 0.3 percent hike in the local transit sales tax. The money would reverse the slide in CT services brought on by the loss of state support after Initiative 695’s passage in 1999.

If voters lack enthusiasm about the sale tax hike, they shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s reasonable to be frustrated that a sales tax hike is the only option available for CT’s voters, which include most people in Snohomish County outside Everett. But the Legislature managed nothing else, leaving CT and other hard-hit agencies no chance to offer broader tax packages.

The state of Washington is begging for future trouble if it continues to use the sales tax as the answer to all its problems. We can’t endlessly pass other anti-tax measures and expect sales tax revenues to fill the holes. But CT, like many other transit systems, is hoping voters agree with those in King County and five other counties who have already decided that such imperfect, sales-tax plans beat paralysis. Voters have a bad set of options, but action beats more anger in this instance.

Initiative 695 sent plenty of messages, some unintended. One of the more unfortunate effects was to hammer transit funding. But every operation can improve, and CT — which can point to many pre-695 efficiency moves — responded more strongly to the initiative than any other transit agency in Washington. It eliminated all weekend service (restoring Saturday service after the Legislature came through with some money) while eliminating 118 worker positions and raising fares.

It is time to begin improving services. That requires more local money, but it will bring real results. CT would be expected to resume Sunday service, which is especially vital for many people with low-income jobs, churchgoers without cars and people with mobility impairments. That’s also an important element in renewing the community’s commitment, begun when the bus system formed in the 1970s, to help transit-dependent portions of the population.

Beyond Sunday runs, CT could expand in ways focused on serving commuters and reducing congestion. The agency has said that it will hold public hearings on service needs if the sales tax increase is approved. It’s vital that any new service be focused on the goals of easing work commutes, serving employment centers and continuing the agency’s growing commitment to serving higher-education students. Such a focus can fit with the public’s needs for good jobs and education during a time of economic uncertainty. CT should also pay attention to the chance to play an enlarged part in efforts to keep manufacturing jobs at Boeing. Indeed, it should show Boeing the company is a valued part of a community that would wholeheartedly welcome further aerospace projects.

It is not easy for the community to step up to a hike in the sales tax, which will be, at least temporarily, the only one in the state to reach 8.9 percent. But the miniscule difference over King County’s 8.8 percent won’t send shoppers scurrying across the county line — unless you believe Seattle folks are currently rushing north to save 0.2 percent on purchases now taxed at 8.6 percent. In return for the 0.3 percent hike — 30 cents on a $100 worth of back-to-school clothes — the community will take a positive, affordable step toward dealing with its traffic problems and serving its own transit needs.

As Republican County Council member Gary Nelson, a frequent tax critic, has said, this is a levy that offers voters a good deal.

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