Voters should approve tax hike to keep buses rolling

Valley Transit simply can't operate a comprehensive, dependable system without additional sales-tax revenue.

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It’s difficult to justify raising the sales tax during the best of economic times. It’s even tougher now given the recession that’s engulfed the nation.

But a very strong case has been made for raising the sales tax by three-tenths of one percent to provide funding for the Valley Transit bus system. These funds are essential for Valley Transit to maintain service at the current level. Having a comprehensive, dependable public transportation service is vital to the community.

Valley Transit is an extraordinarily well-run bus system. It carries 800,000 riders a year or 2,600 passengers a day.

Its manager, Dick Fondahn, and Board of Directors — made up of elected Walla Walla and College Place city council members and Walla Walla County commissioners — have demanded that Valley Transit run efficiently.

That’s why Valley Transit has continued to serve the community for the past decade after half — yes, half — of its funding was eliminated. Voters in 1999 approved Initiative 695, which imposed the flat $30 car tab fee and eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax.

When Valley Transit was started in 1979 it was funded by a three-tenths of a percent sales tax (approved by a vote of the people) and matching funds from the state via the MVET.

When I-695 did away with the MVET match nearly every transit system in the state backfilled those funds by asking voters for more sales tax money. Valley Transit took a different route.

First, the budget was cut and spending reduced. The service provided was trimmed to a level that would allow the bus system to serve the community until another source of revenue could be found. Fondahn, the Valley Transit staff and its board did find additional money by applying for and receiving state and federal grants.

Year after year Valley Transit was able to keep its wheels out of red ink through prudent management and successful grant applications.

Then the recession hit. Sales tax revenue dipped significantly. In addition, the likelihood of future federal grants also disappeared.

So, either Valley Transit must cut its hours of operation in half, which will dramatically curb access to the bus service, or find a sufficient, sustainable funding source. The only viable option for that amount of revenue, about $2 million a year, is a sales tax hike.

Nearly every other transit system in Washington sought an increase in the sales tax rate of that much — or more — over the last decade. Valley Transit officials did everything possible to avoid that action. Now it is unavoidable.

Valley Transit is a critical service to those who can’t drive, can’t afford a car and many others in this Valley. Students count on the system to get to and from schools — and then to their jobs.

Valley Transit is more than a bus line to some, it’s a lifeline.

We strongly urge citizens to support this tax increase to maintain a strong bus system.

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