Doubling Tacoma’s Transit Service by 2025

Historic Service Hours at Pierce Transit
Historic Service Hours at Pierce Transit

By my count, Tacoma currently has about 220,000 hours of bus service within its borders.  This is an idea for a plan to roughly double that amount of service by 2025.

Transit advocates have struggled with competing priorities of what to restore given limited resources and options for new revenue.  Do you use what you have to restore weekend and evening service as most current riders want, weekday frequency that choice riders want, or focus on the most productive commute hours that the general public wants for congestion relief?  What my experience has shown me is that you have to do all of those things if you want a system that provides value to both riders and non-riders in the community.

For the time being, lets assume Pierce Transit is not going back to the ballot to exercise their sales tax authority.  Maybe in 2020, but maybe even later.  Other cities, such as Seattle, Bellingham, and now it appears Spokane, will be going it alone and using Transportation Benefit District sales taxes to fund local transit service when their larger taxing districts failed ballot measures.  Tacoma could easily be next in line.

Tacoma approved Pierce Transit Proposition 1 in 2012 for a 0.3% sales tax. All neighborhoods approved except for Northeast Tacoma.

As a city with a Transportation Benefit District, or TBD, Tacoma has access to 0.2% in sales tax authority or 2 cents on a $10 purchase.  However, following the passage of Proposition 3 in Tacoma last year for street maintenance, only 0.1% of that sales tax authority is left.  If a proposition for a 0.1% sales tax were approved, it would only be about $4.5m/year or about 30,000 service hours.

For reference, Route 14 from Tacoma Dome to Proctor is about 4,200 service hours a year, so we could pay for 7 routes with that level of service, or we could double service on all of Route 2.  10,000 service hours for a route that takes 30 minutes to run is about one bus every half hour for 14 hours a day and is generally considered to be a decent level of service.  To get to 10,000 service hours per route in Tacoma will take more than a 0.1% sales tax.

But there’s good news, Pierce Transit has nearly $100m in its reserve fund according to the 2016 budget and the reserve fund has been growing thanks to rebounding sales tax collections.  So let’s say for calculation’s sake Pierce Transit adds in service alongside Tacoma’s investment at a roughly 1:1 ratio at the same schedule.  That’s then a total of 60,000 service hours.  That would get most routing in Tacoma to a “decent” standard of half hour frequency for most of the day.  This effectively restores service in Tacoma to pre-recession levels by late 2018.

Going further, if Sound Transit 3 contains some funded service for local transit to feed into the regional transit system for 30,000 service hours, that would improve the situation even further and yield service expansion.  Projecting out to 2023, assuming that Sound Transit replaces one or two high ridership bus routes with light rail to TCC and Tacoma Mall, that could net Tacoma another 30,000 service hours and new efficiencies.

And if Pierce Transit goes back to the ballot in say 2020, that could add another 60,000 service hours to Tacoma’s borders.  Adding all of that service up comes to about 180,000 service hours, which adds to the 220,000 service hours currently in effect and 40,000 service hours in streetcar service – effectively more than doubling local transit service in Tacoma proper by 2025.

The assumptions here are that the City of Tacoma will fund 30k service hours for expanded weekend and evening service, Pierce Transit will focus on restoring weekday frequency, Sound Transit will contribute to some weekday peak service that feeds into Sounder and ST Express, that Tacoma Link can effectively replace two high ridership bus routes in Tacoma by 2023, and that Pierce Transit will go back to the ballot by the mid 2020’s to fund bus rapid transit on Pacific Avenue and other service improvements.

Step 1 would require the City of Tacoma to explore a 0.1% sales tax for transit.  Given that there wasn’t a dime of transit funding in the last two transportation propositions for the City and that voters approved the last two Pierce Transit propositions in Tacoma, I think local transit riders are long overdue their opportunity to restore service.