Talk of raising sales tax for Valley Transit going nowhere

Voters won't approve a tax hike. Cuts will have to be made until the economy recovers.

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The Valley Transit bus system's money troubles are real and serious. The situation is so serious it could result in a significant reduction in service.

However, it's a mistake to even consider increasing the amount of sales tax revenue Valley Transit receives. Voters will not approve raising the sales tax to fill Valley Transit's budget gap.

Frankly, approval of the sales tax that got Valley Transit started 30 years ago was a hard sell. In its early years Valley Transit had more than enough cash to operate. It received funding from the .03 percent sales tax collected and just about as much money from the motor vehicle excise tax.

In the early 1980s this community had a heated debate over the size and scope of the bus system.

Ultimately, the management of Valley Transit and its board of directors -- elected officials from Walla Walla County and the cities of Walla Walla and College Place -- did a solid job of putting together a reasonably sized bus system for this area.

Valley Transit's ridership was steady and so was its income for years.

But in 1999 voters approved Initiative 695, which established the $30 car tabs and repealed the motor vehicle excise tax. Valley Transit lost about half its funding. This blow to public transit was an unintended consequence of reducing the cost of licensing cars and trucks.

Over the last decade Valley Transit has had to reduce service, raise fares and dip into its reserves. Still, the bus system was operating at an acceptable level.

The current economic downturn has reduced its sales-tax income just as it has for state, city and county governments.

Valley Transit is now faced with grim choices, either find new sources of funding or cut service as much as 25 percent.

Valley Transit is going to have to look at cuts, at least in the short term, because the chances of getting voters to approve a doubling of the sales tax hike -- from .03 percent to .06 percent -- is close to zero. A deep recession isn't the time to ask folks to boost the sales tax.

The cuts to service, however, need to be made with an eye toward the future. When the economy turns around -- and it will -- Valley Transit will see its revenue increase. When that occurs, some of the reduction in services can be restored.

Even then, however, it's unlikely Valley Transit will have enough cash to operate the top-notch bus system we have come to expect.

The long-term solution is to lobby the state Legislature to restore some of the funding lost when I-695 was approved.

Public transit, whether in Walla Walla, Spokane, Tri-Cities or Seattle, benefits us all through reduced energy consumption and wear and tear on roads.

When the state's economic situation improves the Legislature should put more money into public transit around the state to supplement the sales tax that is already being paid for bus service.

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