Community Transit should lower costs, not increase tax

Snohomish County and Community Transit officials have announced they want more tax authority from the Legislature to pay for more passenger train and bus service.

The new taxes they have in mind would increase the tax burden on working families and hit most Snohomish County residents especially hard. Most county residents already pay a 0.9 percent sales tax and a 0.3 percent Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, the tax based on the state’s estimate of your car’s value, to Sound Transit.

In addition, Snohomish County residents outside of Everett currently pay a 0.9 percent sales tax to Community Transit for local and commuter bus service.

Next year, Sound Transit officials want to raise the sales tax they collect from 0.9 percent to 1.4 percent to fund more passenger rail and buses within their tax district. They also want to raise the unpopular car value tax rate from 0.3 percent to 1.1 percent of a vehicle’s value (or $110 annually on a $10,000 vehicle) and increase the property tax burden on households.

Community Transit officials also say they want the ability to increase their share of the sales tax rate from 0.9 percent to 1.2 percent to pay for more buses. Both tax-increase proposals would go to a public vote.

New taxes don’t seem justified, in light of good news from Snohomish County’s transit agency. Community Transit officials are adding bus service without raising regressive taxes on working families. They plan to increase bus service by 17 percent this June, due to a rebounding economy and a recent windfall in sales tax revenues.

What Community Transit officials haven’t announced, however, is the embarrassingly high cost of running their agency compared to other transit systems in the state.

According to the state Department of Transportation, Community Transit is one of the most expensive transit agencies in the state for its size. It costs a whopping $9.10 per passenger trip on a typical Community Transit bus. Although the adult fare to ride the bus is $2, bus fares on average only cover $1.40 of each trip. Taxpayers subsidize the other $7.70.

Spokane’s transit agency serves about the same-size area as Community Transit, but with half the population. Yet even with fewer potential customers, Spokane Transit carries more people than Community Transit at a lower cost. Spokane Transit’s cost to move a passenger is just $3.98 per trip on local bus routes, less than half of Community Transit’s. In 2013, Spokane Transit provided the public 11.1 million bus trips for $44 million, compared to Community Transit’s 5.3 million trips for $48 million.

Snohomish County taxpayers also pay more to receive less. Spokane Transit provided 383,000 hours of local bus service last year — Community Transit provided 100,000 fewer hours, but spent $4 million more.

Another similar agency, Clark County’s C-TRAN, provided about the same number of trips as Community Transit in 2013 (5.4 million) for half of the cost, $26 million.

Costs at King County Metro, the largest county bus system in the state, are only $4.41 per trip, and Pierce Transit spends about $4.75 per trip.

Community Transit has already maxed out its taxing authority, imposing the highest sales tax they can under state law. Before transit officials lobby Olympia for more power to raise taxes, they should work to reduce the cost of providing bus service. The county’s transit agency is currently adding service, which is a good thing, but it could expand service even more with better budget management instead of raising regressive taxes.

Bob Pishue is director of Washington Policy Center’s Coles Center for Transportation.

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