Uncertain sources of revenue cloud Kitsap Transit's future

"Drop in on budget discussions these days in Olympia and you'll quickly realize that the odds are stacked heavily against recent efforts by Kitsap Transit to restore the agency's services to pre-1999 levels, or improving them.Although Gov. Gary Locke's transportation budget proposal calls for allocating more than $6.5 million to Kitsap Transit over the next biennium, the package lacks punch.That's because the budget fails to assure local transit agencies across the state, including Kitsap Transit, that a permanent funding source is in store for them that would replace what was lost after the 2000 legislature - in response to Initiative 695 - slashed the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) fund. In its absence, Kitsap Transit lost nearly $10 million, or about 43 percent of its operating budget. Reeling from the loss while still searching for a means to survive the next two years, Kitsap Transit initially cut its service by 25 percent last January and doubled its fares. The agency eventually reinstated Sunday service, however, and dropped fare prices, since revenue streams flowed back at a higher rate than expected in 2000. Kitsap Transit officials say the agency can follow through with existing service levels throughout 2001 without further cuts, thanks to about $2.9 million in bridge money the legislature granted the agency. After this year, however, Kitsap Transit's future is less certain.That's why transit officials have been scouring the countryside ever since last spring for a permanent funding fix to avoid potential service cuts or fare hikes in 2002. Dan Snow, the executive director of the state transit association isn't too optimistic. Even if this transportation measure is passed by the legislature, there would still be no ongoing revenue source identified for local transit agencies, he said, and that's what's troubling us.All told, the governor wants to divvy up more than $177 million to all the various transit agencies across the state, which only accounts for about 25 percent of what was lost after the MVET fund was slashed last spring, said Snow. Moreover, the governor hasn't cited a specific funding source for the millions of dollars he wants to allocate to transit agencies.Transit agencies realize that this is a year of scarce resources, during which our legislators are faced with some painful decisions that make finding a permanent funding solution extremely difficult, said Snow. On the other hand, if transit systems are to be a viable solution to congestion woes troubling the Puget Sound region, then one needs to be found.During this budget-writing session, legislators are faced not only with the effects of a severely pared down MVET fund, but other citizen-passed initiatives that prohibit state spending. Take Initiative 722, for instance, which called for capping property tax increases at 2 percent, not to mention the measure voters passed ensuring raises for Washington's teachers.But Snow said the state transit agency association will continue to try convince legislators a fix must be found despite these budgeting constraints.Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-23rd District, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said he is sympathetic to the budget woes Kitsap Transit is facing. However, Kitsap lawmakers, in general, are focusing more heavily these days on restoring the WSF system and ensuring ferry fares don't skyrocket in May.There are alternatives to relying solely on the legislature, however well intentioned lawmakers seem to be. Local jurisdictions can approve higher sales taxes to make up for the loss in MVET funds, transit agencies could pare down services, or funding solutions provided by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation could be approved by voters.There has been some talk among Kitsap Transit officials of placing another sales tax increase initiative on the spring ballot, even though such an effort failed last September when voters handily turned down Proposition 1. Kitsap Transit Executive Director Richard Hayes couldn't be reached for comment.We can't expect local jurisdictions to approve sales tax increases to pay for transit services, conceded Snow, when they are not expected to do that to pay for city and county roads.The answer, he said, must come from the state. "

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