By The Herald Editorial Board
Among the issues and services that the City of Everett has been “rethinking” in recent years, transportation — specifically Everett Transit — may be the longest “thunk” about.
Kicked around over the years has been the debate over whether Everett should maintain the city’s tax- and fare-supported transit system of fixed-route and paratransit services or join with Community Transit, which serves nearly all other cities and communities in Snohomish County with its fixed-route and Dart paratransit services.
First formed in 1969 when the city acquired a private bus company, levied taxes and charged passengers a dime, Everett Transit now operates 42 buses on nine routes as well as 29 Paratransit vans.
In recent years, Everett Transit has often operated at a deficit, with expenses outpacing revenue. This has been occurring against the city’s own larger structural budget deficit as it has struggled to find the revenue to provide services for a growing community.
The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened the concern. Everett Transit ridership during 2020 dropped 70 percent before leveling off at 40 percent of 2019 numbers. Closures at the city’s senior center and elsewhere also decreased demand for Paratransit services. Losses in fare revenue and a drop in sales tax revenue — the agency’s sales tax allocation is 6 cents on a $10 purchase — added to its difficulties.
As Everett and the rest of the county, state and country now begin emerging from the pandemic’s economic slumber, the city remains poised to see an increase of 60 percent in population with related growth in jobs and commerce over the next 20 years. The question is whether Everett Transit can meet the needs of a growing city.
In 2018, the city began its most recent “rethinking” of transit. The most recent phase concluded with a report to the Everett City Council that offered results of an outreach and survey of city residents and transit users and a recommendation for the city to consider three options for moving the city’s transit needs forward. Those options:
Current funding: With the current .6 percent sales tax — 6 cents on a $10 purchase, this would allow a return to pre-pandemic service levels of service with some limited addition to service but would not keep up with growing demand for routes to serve new jobs and residents.
Growth: Would keep Everett Transit as a city-managed agency and would go to the voters seeking an increase the sales tax of .3 percent above the current .6 percent, for a total 9 cents on a $10 purchase. The new revenue would over the coming decade allow increased frequency of bus services, expanded hours on mornings, evenings and weekends and limited additional service as jobs and population increase.
Growth through consolidation: Would see Everett Transit absorbed into Community Transit and, assuming voter approval, would mean an increase to 1.2 percent for the city’s sales tax, or 12 cents on a $10 purchase. With Community Transit taking over local routes, the additional revenue, within about two years, would bring increased frequency and routes, increased access and reduced walk time to bus stops and expanded hours for mornings, evenings and weekends.
The report spurred new urgency among the city council, and direction to city staff to form a steering committee to evaluate the options and move forward.
“I think we need to get that going yesterday,” Council President Brenda Stonecipher said during a June 9 council meeting.
In the past when pondering such questions, the council has typically sided with more study and slower consideration, but the urgency shown by Stonecipher and others on the council to move forward now — not waiting until after the fall elections and the swearing in of at least three new council members — is appropriate and necessary.
There is not yet clear direction on the options from the public, Everett Transit Director Tom Hingson told the council at the June 9 meeting. While the survey results show support for better service — no surprise there — the results, he said, “do not, however, show there is a clear sense for how people want to see that occur.”
Everett residents will have their say; both options for a sales tax increase would require a vote. But the process to get to that election should start now and not wait for a ballot as late as 2024.
The importance of reaching a decision on how transit services move forward goes beyond issues of basic service and taxes, however.
Transit represents among the best opportunities for reducing the carbon emissions responsible for climate change; the transportation sector is responsible for about 40 percent of the state’s production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
That potential is especially true for transit service in Everett. Everett Transit has been a leader among transit agencies in switching from diesel-powered coaches to hybrid and, in recent years, electric buses. Of its 42 fixed-route buses, seven are full-electric battery-powered coaches and 10 are diesel-electric hybrids. At least two more electrics are expected soon, and the goal for the agency has been for half of its fleet to be electric by 2024. Community Transit does not operate electric buses currently, but does run diesel-electric hybrids on its popular and ever-expanding Swift rapid-transit bus lines.
That commitment to electric won’t have to change, regardless of who’s running the routes in Everett. Everett Transit has proved the city’s suitability for electric transit. Its electric buses — 40-foot Proterras with seating for 31 and two passengers in wheelchairs — have a reported range of about 200 miles, between chargings; that fits well within the typical 100 miles for most routes’ eight-hour shifts.
An extensive transit system in the city will build on the city’s and region’s ability to lower carbon emissions even further as Sound Transit’s Link light rail system arrives first at Paine Field and later at Everett Station in the mid-2030s. The more a bus stop is within walking distance of homes, the more ridership can easily increase for light rail, encouraging less reliance on single-occupancy vehicles, less time in commutes and less carbon in the air.
The council, in moving forward now with a steering committee, will allow for a full discussion of the options before transit users and city residents and a decision on how best to move forward. Regardless of the driver, we don’t want to miss this bus.
Clarification: The tax scenarios in the thee proposals have been clarified to show that the current rate of .6 percent allocation in the city’s sales tax would remain unchanged in the current funding proposal, would increase by .3 percent in the growth scenario and would increase 1.2 percent in the growth through consolidation scenario.