What Might Have Been

Back in 1999, the voters of Washington State approved the passage of Initiative 695. By passing the initiative, the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) on car registrations was repealed, as well as a stipulation that voters had to approve all future tax increases was made law. Though the initiative was later declared unconstitutional (largely because it violated the law of a voter initiative covering two topics), the state legislature ended up repealing the MVET themselves to prevent voter backlash.

After the MVET was repealed, many transit agencies across the state were left scrambling for funds, since the MVET had been a long-standing source of their budgets. More importantly, it was a stable source of money, which can’t be said for the volatile and economically-dependant sales taxes that also contributed funds to the budget. A good number of agencies ended up having to cut back service and raise fares as a result. With the exception of 4 transit agencies (Grant Transit Authority, Link Transit, Pacific Transit, and Yakima Transit), every agency in the state has had to raise their local sales tax rate since 1999.

Here in the Tri-Cities, Ben Franklin Transit was able to survive for a few years after the MVET repeal, making minor changes and using money from reserves to preserve service. However, that couldn’t be a long term solution, and so in 2002 BFT had to go to the voters and ask for an increase in the sales tax. The rate at that time was only 0.3%, but BFT wanted to raise that up to 0.6% (0.9% is the maximum allowable by state law). As part of the process of trying to get voters to approve the increase, BFT made sure to let the public know just how much was at stake if the increase did not go through. Though the list is long, I’ll highlight several of the potential losses below:

  • Cut all Saturday service
  • Cut Route 10 (West Richland) and Route 45 (Kennewick)
  • End of service cut back to 6PM (it was running until 7PM back then)
  • All local routes would be cut back to 60-min frequencies
  • Cut all Special Event Service (Fair Bus, Hydroplane Shuttle, etc)
  • Cut Dial-A-Ride service back to the minimally required 3/4 mile zone
  • Cut all Night Service/Taxi Feeder

*In the original list, BFT also proposed the shifting of Dial-A-Ride from “Door to Door” to “Curb to Curb” but that was removed.

Thankfully for BFT and the citizens of the Tri-Cities, the increase was passed by the voters and went into effect on July 1, 2002. After that, BFT saw minimal changes until the recession starting effecting the local economy. Again, BFT was able to hold off on drastic cuts, though minor cuts still did have to be made.

The reason I bring this all up is because BFT is facing a potential fare increase this year. Public hearings on the matter will be held at Three Rivers Transit Center on March 15th at 2PM and 5:30PM so riders can have the chance to comment and let their voice be heard. In the recent days, I’ve overheard a few riders complaining about how unfair the fare increase is to them. However, I think we need to look at the bigger picture. Depending on how you look at it, the economy may be recovering, but that doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down just yet. And we only have to look at our friends Community Transit and Pierce Transit (both who’ve had to undertake massive cuts to service/reductions to the area served) to be reminded just how lucky we really are.

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One Comment on “What Might Have Been”

  1. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen some of those cuts realized. In my view the trouble lies in a reluctance of the board to ask the voters for more money. The ability to enact an MVET may soon again become a reality. I am confident that the board will not attempt to collect it. The Tri-Cities is unfortunately burdened with a transit system that lacks forward focus, and has poor credibility with the public.


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