Valley Transit tax wins big

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WALLA WALLA - Valley Transit buses will cruise into the future with no major cuts to service after voters threw their support behind a new sales tax Tuesday.

Voters approved a new three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax for Valley Transit in what Auditor Karen Martin described as "one of the largest margins" she's seen in her 10 years of elections for Walla Walla County.

Of the 11,892 ballots counted Tuesday night, 9,075 - or 76.3 percent - were in favor of the tax, compared to 2,817 - 23.7 percent - opposed. Martin said updated numbers for the postmarked ballots that continue to arrive will be posted Friday, but will make no difference in the outcome.

"There's no guessing game on the rest of the ballots as far as how it's going to go," Martin said this morning.

The results mean that consumers will pay 3 cents more on a $10 local retail purchase. The money will help fund the operation, maintenance and capital needs of Valley Transit. The transit system was hurled into financial straits last year after the recession ate into the sales tax revenue that had become a vital source of funding since the 1999 voter-approved repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax.

State matching funds from the tax had been a major source of support for the public transportation system. When it was replaced with a $30 flat car tab fee, transit systems across Washington turned to voters for sales tax increases to make up the difference. Valley Transit officials say they avoided doing that for as long as they could, supplementing grant funding received to keep their programs alive with reserves.

But when the money ran out and sales tax revenue that already supported the system decreased, the bus system began to skid into financial turmoil. Fares were tripled from 25 cents to 75 cents.

The results of the special election were a welcome shock to even the strongest supporters of the sales tax increase. A gathering at the Main Street headquarters of The Campaign for Valley Transit turned into a celebration party with food, a three-person band and vocalists emerging from the crowd of about 60 people, said campaign co-chair, Valley Transit board member and Walla Walla Mayor Barbara Clark.

"Those numbers were really amazing," Clark said this morning.

"When we first began there was, I think, a real question about whether any community would choose to tax itself during hard economic times."

As word of Valley Transit's financial difficulties spread through public presentations, door-knocking efforts and street corner campaigning, Clark said she believes even those who don't ride the bus were realizing its impact.

"I think what happened is we all began to realize how critical it is to maintain Valley Transit for all of us - not just those who ride it right now," she said.

Valley Transit Director Dick Fondahn said the significance of the outcome truly resonated with him Tuesday night, when a Valley Transit employee expressed relief. He didn't know if he would have a job had the voters decided against the increase, Fondahn said.

He said he expects Valley Transit to receive the first injection from the increased sales tax in September. In the meantime, local residents and riders shouldn't notice a single difference, other than maybe extreme gratitude from Valley Transit.

"The beauty and simplicity is it's almost anti-climactic," he said. "We weren't asking for an expansion, so nothing should be different. The community will continue to receive what we've been providing."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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