WA: Tri-Cities voters may be asked to cut transit sales taxes. This is what it could mean

April 11, 2024
The Tri-Cities transit agency stands to lose up to $200 million in funding by 2037 if the sales tax reduction is passed, according to a presentation set for the board's Thursday meeting, April 11.

Apr. 8—Ben Franklin Transit's board is reviving a push to reduce its local sales tax, at a time when the transit system could already be set to lose roughly 10% of its funding due to a statewide ballot initiative to repeal the state's carbon tax.

The Tri-Cities transit agency stands to lose up to $200 million in funding by 2037 if the sales tax reduction is passed, according to a presentation set for the board's Thursday meeting, April 11.

If the carbon tax elimination initiative passes this November, but the sales tax reduction doesn't, the transit agency will lose $70 million in funding over the same time period, or about $5.5 million per year.

If the board convinces voters to reduce the transit agency's sales tax by 0.1%, they will not be eligible to receive the carbon tax money, whether or not the ballot initiative is successful.

The loss in sales tax revenue over that same period would amount to an estimated $130 million.

The board, which is made up of elected leaders from Benton and Franklin counties and the four cities, previously let an attempt to reduce the sales tax die in 2022 after some public outcry.

Since then, new members have joined the board and the current slate of elected officials seems largely in favor of making the cuts.

At least one board member has floated the possibility of using the reduction as a way to sell the public on passing a new sales tax to help pay for the failing 911 infrastructure in Tri-Cities.

At a March board meeting, Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier suggested the board put the transit tax cut back on the table. Other board members seemed to be on the same page and agreed, but there was no further public discussion.

Didier has been one of the strongest supporters of lowering the transit agency's sales tax, and the Franklin County commissioners have frequently talked about the need to lower the rate — especially if they intend to ask for a new 911 sales tax to pay for more than $21 million in tower and radio upgrades across the region.

"I've been an advocate for this since I've been on the board, and I think we seriously need to look at (this reduction)," Didier said in March. "With the high food costs, high fuel costs, every family is suffering right now."

"We need to help this community out. We should be looking at possibly reducing our 6/10ths of a percent and reducing it down for the people of the Tri-Cities so they can afford to live," he continued.

"Because I'm seeing more and more people barely etching out their lives if they've got children. It is tough right now, and I think if we can budget our smaller buses for moving people to the hubs that take more people across the river to different cities and counties, we ought to be looking at that. And we ought to be looking at giving back to the hard working people of this community," he said.

Chairman Will McKay, who represents the Benton County commissioners, discussed setting up an executive committee to look into the proposal before placing it on a future meeting agenda.

The Tri-City Herald reached out to the transit agency about plans for a potential sales tax reduction last month and for more information about potential discussion among board members, but did not get a response.

BFT General Manager Rachelle Glazier recently announced that she's leaving the agency, though she intends to remain available to the board in a limited capacity as a consultant.

The agency has been under fire in recent months for approving a contract amendment worth up to $3 million to have third-party Via Connect drivers supplement overflow Dial-A-Ride calls.

Drivers say it's an attempt to eliminate their jobs, and passengers are concerned the most vulnerable people in the Tri-Cities are being put at risk.

The transit agency also is being sued for discrimination by a former member of its leadership team.

What's the impact?

The sales tax reduction could trigger a $130 million reduction in funding by itself, starting at $9.2 million in the first full year and growing $200,000 per year.

It also will lose money from the carbon tax if they make the cuts, whether it's repealed or not.

If both the sales tax is reduced and voters approve the initiative to repeal the state's carbon tax, the transit agency's presentation says they could be forced to make cuts to service, which would further endanger federal funding.

Phased service cuts would begin in Spring 2025, resulting in a ridership loss of 15% to 20%, according to the transit board's presentation.

What could those cuts look like?

The presentation outlined a number of possible reductions.


Delay capital projects, including buying land for a West Pasco transit hub in the Broadmoor area next to the future Pasco Aquatic Facility.


Delay expanding downtown Pasco transit hub, though specifics were not outlined.


Cut regular transit bus hours from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m. or earlier.


Eliminate Sunday service and reduce frequency of metro routes.


Reduce Connect van service hours and zone coverage.


Cut Dial-A-Ride to a curb-to-curb service, meaning drivers would not help residents get into their homes or buildings the way they currently do.


Eliminate the "beyond-3/4 mile service" from Dial-A-Ride, meaning instead of paying a higher rate, disabled Tri-Citians or seniors who live more than 3/4 of a mile from a regular bus stop would no longer have access to service.


Reconsider fare rates, which reduce overall costs for frequent riders, and determine whether youths will be able to continue riding for free.

If a sales tax reduction is passed, the transit agency would immediately lose funding from the carbon tax, whether it is repealed or not.

That's because they're required to maintain the sale tax collection rate used in 2022 when it passed. That would be a loss of $3.5 million in transit support grants and $1.925 million in special needs service funding per year. Their funding reduction from sales tax would come out to $6.8 million for the partial year.

The transit service's program to allow youths 18 and under to ride for free began in 2022, and is paid for with those state grants that requires them to maintain their current tax rate.

County residents would still have to pay that carbon tax, but see none of the benefit.

The presentation said many of the potential areas for cuts could also trigger further funding losses because of grant requirements to maintain certain levels of service.

How does BFT's taxing compare?

Only one transit agency in the state currently collects less sales tax than BFT.

BFT collects 0.6 cents per dollar in sales tax. About half of the state's 15 largest transit agencies collect that amount. Skagit is the only agency listed as collecting less, at 0.4 cents, according to the BFT presentation.

Intercity Transit in Olympia and Community Transit in Everett collect the most at 1.2 cents.

Ben Franklin Transit budgets for a cost of $9.51 per mile for fixed route services, according to a finance presentation in March. Last year that cost actually ranged from $7.82 to $8.67 per mile, depending on the month.

That is significantly more cost efficient than the most recently available data from competitors such as Pierce Transit, which ran at an estimated $14.33 per mile in 2022 and Community Transit at $13.37 per mile in 2019.

Ben Franklin Transit's sales tax revenue has nearly doubled over the past decade, from about $28 million in 2014 to $53 million in 2024. Their expenses have also grown along the same pace, from $32 million to a budgeted $59 million in 2023.

Although the transit agency budgeted for $59 million in expenses, their actual spending came out to $47.5 million. They saved $4 million in fixed route expenses, $3.5 million in Dial-A-Ride expenses and about $1 million in maintenance expenses.

Their primary expense in those areas is labor, and they've saved millions over the past few years by not filling open positions. Glazier had previously told the board she planned to come back to them this summer with a proposal for closing out even more open positions.

After capital funds and operating expenses and regular reserves are accounted for, the transit agency has a surplus of about $24.5 million.

They were able to achieve such a large coffer thanks, in part, to steadily increasing sales tax revenues and huge increases in grant funding. Some of that grant funding was through federal pandemic relief and won't be renewable. Other portions came from the state's new carbon tax, which is at risk of being repealed.

New public commenting rules

The Ben Franklin Transit Board will discuss potentially placing a measure for sales tax reduction on the November ballot during its April 11 meeting at 6 p.m.

Meetings are in Kennewick in Room 303 of the Benton County Administration Building at 7122 W. Okanogan Place in Building E. They are also streamed online via Zoom.

There is opportunity for public comment during the meeting, if it relates to an agenda item.

However, the board also will be looking to new adopt rules restricting public comment for the second time in recent months.

Prior to a December change, public comment was open to all matters the public wished to discuss, but the board voted to limit comments to agenda items because of a high number of employees and riders discussing hiring practices, service issues and treatment of employees.

This agenda items looks to further narrow comments because of disruptions in the meetings and shorten comment periods.

Since the board made changes limiting comments the first time, they've dealt with a packed house of members of the public who have insisted on making their voices heard and, at times, disrupted the meetings.

The new policy would limit public comment periods to 30 minutes total and a maximum of three minutes per speaker.

They also will prioritize speakers who sign up ahead of time online.

If any time remains, the board chairman will pick who is allowed to speak from among those still wanting to speak.

The new rules also clarify the chairman's power to have disruptive commenters removed from the meeting, and potentially ban them from future meetings if they are disruptive at multiple meetings.

The first ban would last for 45 days, then increase to 90 and 180 days.

They would still be allowed to submit written comments. The new policy also creates a way for banned commenters to appeal.

This story was originally published April 8, 2024, 1:00 PM.


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