Tax would keep Valley Transit buses rolling

Valley Transit is asking for a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase.

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Valley Transit buses line up en masse at the downtown hub as they wait for passengers to load on a rainy Walla Walla morning. Valley Transit hopes for fun times ahead -- or at least continuation of present services -- with a yes vote in the Feb. 9 Transit election.

WALLA WALLA — Public transportation was the farthest thing from Riett Brown Jacks’ mind last November when the ladder buckled under her husband, dropping him to the garage floor at their Walla Walla home.

She now refers to that accident — and the series of events that ultimately threatened his ability to drive — as her "wakeup call" to the importance of the public bus system.

"I had always supported it, but it didn’t become personal" until then, she said.

In the aftermath, Jacks has become a voice in favor of a sales-tax increase proposed to help save the financially floundering Valley Transit service.

Residents who live within the boundaries of Walla Walla Public Schools and College Place Public Schools are being asked for a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase — or 3 more cents on a $10 purchase — to help fund the operation, maintenance and capital needs of Valley Transit. The proposition needs a simple majority approval.

Jacks epitomizes the make-or-break vote in the Feb. 9 special election: A local resident who doesn’t actually ride the bus but believes it to be such a vital service that she will vote "yes" for a tax increase during a recession.

For some considering their vote, the decision may be punctuated by the element of surprise. Many in the community were not aware of Valley Transit’s financial need until funding became so dire last year that fares were tripled to 75 cents and major service cuts were proposed. The cuts were postponed pending the outcome of the election.

Historically, Valley Transit was funded with a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax — approved by voters when the service began in 1979 — as well as matching funds from the state through the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.

Valley Transit Manager Dick Fondahn said it was a well-oiled machine until 1999 when voters approved Initiative 695.

The initiative replaced the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax with a flat $30 car tab fee. Like transit systems across the state, the local operation lost more than half its funding with the loss of the MVET. But unlike the others, it didn’t immediately ask voters for additional sales tax to make up the difference.

Instead, Fondahn said, Valley Transit’s board of directors found ways to continue operating. In that first year, the organization saved $35,000 by bringing Dial-A-Ride inhouse. Before then Valley Transit had contracted with the local senior center to provide supervision and operation of the service. The operation also added more van-based services in place of fixed routes. Some services were cut back while new sources of revenue could be found.

When that money was found — through state and federal grants — the services were restored. Along the way, the operation was infused by injections from Valley Transit’s reserves. With the local economy booming, Valley Transit would have the needed sales tax revenues. But then the recession hit, dropping Valley Transit’s portion of sales tax by 15 to 20 percent.

Fondahn said the 2010 Census brought one more glimmer of hope. Walla Walla was expected through the Census process to be re-designated from a rural area into a small urban area in the eyes of the federal government. The change would have resulted in a boost in federal funding. However, the government raised the population requirement for the re-designation, dashing any expectation for more money.

All the while, ridership has generally increased, Fondahn said. In 2009, 750,000 passenger rides were provided on Valley Transit buses. That number was down from 2008, when 800,000 rides were provided.

Fondahn believes the fare increase at the end of the year may have played a role. December saw a drop in passenger traffic.

Since 2000, however, more people have utilized the service, he said. In 2006, Valley Transit saw a 26 percent increase in ridership. That went up another 12 percent in 2007; and a 7 percent hike in 2008.

Fondahn said he believes the board of directors and employees have done a better job than many transit systems in the state.

"They spread that rainy day fund out over more than 10 years," he said. "Really nobody else in the state has done that."

But the relatively smooth operation through the hardship may also pose a challenge.

"The downside is it’s created a disconnect with the voters today because they don’t understand how the loss of a revenue stream in 2000 could be causing this amount of problems in 2010," Fondahn said.

Local residents have shown they can be generous in the worst of economic times if they believe in the cause. Last August, Walla Walla voters approved an $11.6 million bond for a new 28,000-square-foot police station to be built at Second Avenue and Moore Street.

If the sales tax measure fails, Valley Transit would have to cut service by about 50 percent by the end of the current biennium. According to The Campaign for Valley Transit — co-chaired by Barbara Clark and Jack Barga — that would result in the elimination of most or all fixed routes. It would also mean an 18 percent reduction in the 48-person staff, officials said.

Proponents say those impacts are just the beginning. The trickle-down effect of a weakened bus system would spread to social-service agencies and businesses whose clients and customers are fed to them by the transit system, they say.

Valley Transit serves a network of human-service agencies that don’t have their own transportation programs. If the bus system is downsized, organizations such as the Blue Mountain Action Council, Helpline and Children’s Home Society would likely be forced to shift their own budgets to compensate for transportation needs — meaning money would have to be taken from some other aspect of their operations to pay for it.

For local businesswoman Jacks, the need for the service was brought home about a month after her husband, Rich, fell from that ladder. Initial tests at the hospital that November day showed he had made it through the fall with no major injuries.

But by Christmas Eve he was exhibiting stroke-like symptoms. One leg was dragging, and he could no longer move it from the gas pedal to apply the brake. Through further testing, it turned out his nasty spill had resulted in a tiny bleed that was slowly affecting his body’s ability to function.

Rich Jacks has since recovered from neurosurgery. But when the Valley Transit proposal came forward, his wife had an epiphany: If Rich’s health hadn’t improved, he wouldn’t have been able to drive. And with tax season here, Riett, a certified public accountant, would not have been able to taxi him around.

"It brought it home in both of us in such a strong way that, yeah, we normally think of (the bus) as something that benefits other people, but not really," she said. "We’re all just a heartbeat away from having to use this ourselves.

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

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