By MICHAEL WHITNEY
Published March 15, 2023
What-if study of merging city, regional bus agencies nears
finish; transit union says stop
EVERETT — A study on whether to consolidate Everett’s city bus system into the larger Community Transit system is nearing the light of day. Work began a little over a year ago.
But Everett Transit’s union says the underlying situation has shifted, that the city bus system is now financially stable, and argues the purposes to consolidate are no longer there.
Earlier this year, Everett Transit union members began speaking their opposition to the City Council.
The city transit system is providing riders more local service with more frequent buses in response to demand, a position paper from the union says.
“It is in citizens’ best interest to put the merger to bed,” Everett Transit’s union president Steve Oss told the City Council Feb. 8.
The study will still be rolling. The council and city administration support completing it, city spokeswoman Simone Tarver said.
“Consolidation is not about ET’s benefit. Rather, what is the potential benefit to Everett residents in a consolidated system?,” Tarver said by email. “That is the question Council asked Everett Transit to clarify and as there are many subjects in the question, it will take some time to complete.”
The city began looking at consolidation because Everett Transit’s budget projections looked rocky. This was before the coronavirus pandemic sliced through transit agency budgets.
However, the union points to how Everett Transit is now getting $2 million annually in state grant money by agreeing to go fare-free for riders under age 18. The state cash incentive for free youth fares was a piece of last year’s special state transportation funding package called Move Ahead Washington.
It will get about $2 million a year into the late 2030s. This money hired 10 new positions at Everett Transit this year.
Revenue and operation expenses are even, not growing.
Half of Everett Transit’s revenue is dependent on income collected through a 0.6 percent city transit tax.
This sales tax brings in between $20 to $25 million a year. Federal and state grants bring in 40% of the pie. No bus agency gets rich off bus fares; those are a fraction of a percent of the earnings.
Most of this money goes to wages, operations and capital projects.
On the study, it is anticipated public listening meetings could be in June to likely form a final version of the study to present to City Council, Tarver said.
A joint committee of officials has been working the past year discussing consolidation.
A draft of the consolidation study was anticipated to be seen by them sometime this spring. The committee meetings are not open to the public. The committee is three Community Transit board members such as City of Snohomish Councilman Tom Merrill, and three elected officials from Everett: Councilmembers Brenda Stonecipher, Ben Zarlingo and Mayor Cassie Franklin.
Any consolidation decision would require a vote of the people by way of the Everett City Council putting it onto the ballot.
The Everett transit union’s view is to not even take that step. Being absorbed into Community Transit would double the retail sales tax collected for transit to 1.2 cents to match Community Transit’s rate (12 cents on a $10 purchase).
Losing local control makes some twitch.
Oss believes “our neighborhood service would be challenged,” and the bus routes inside Everett wouldn’t be protected if the larger Community Transit required cutbacks, he said.
Oss said it also could mean Everett riders wouldn’t have local elected officials to lean on. Right now, the buck ultimately stops with the Everett City Council if there’s a problem. Community Transit’s board is a composition of mayors and City Council members from around the region.
The two agencies largely have separate service areas: Everett Transit buses stay in Everett, and Community Transit serves the rest of the county. It’s been this way since Community Transit’s founding in 1976, specifically because Everett voters declined to join the regional system. Everett Transit was already in existence as a city-owned system since 1969.
Community Transit’s biggest presence in Everett is with its Swift bus rapid transit lines. These are streamlined routes to move people down corridors with fewer bus stops.
The city gives Community Transit approximately $2 million a year to have the Swift Blue Line run on Evergreen Way.
The Blue Line’s endpoint is in Shoreline. There is also a Green Line that runs in the city along Airport Road to the Boeing area. Everett doesn’t pay toward this Green Line.
In 2021, Everett paid $1.94 million, which means the city “covered an estimated 16.6% of the cost of the Swift Blue Line operations that year,” Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia said.
The payment money comes from sales taxes raised for Everett Transit, and $2 million is a little over one-tenth of the city bus system’s sales tax revenue.
Everett Transit’s union has made public calls before for ending these Swift payments, and Oss, its president, reaffirmed this position during an interview in February.
“The $2 million we pay is real money to us, it’s chump change to them,” Oss said. “Agencies share areas around the country because it’s for the benefit of passengers.”
However, the Swift lines are heavily used.
Boardings within Everett city limits made for 42% of Swift’s ridership on the Blue line and the Green Line. In total last year, 869,700 people hopped on these buses in Everett. It breaks down to an average of 2,757 riders boarding each weekday, 1,869 on Saturdays and 1,330 on Sundays, according to Community Transit.
For context, about 4,000 people ride Everett Transit local routes each weekday.
Oss said Everett Transit could easily get people to connecting buses outside the city through its own services.
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