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Hunting for Answers to Residents' Transportation Questions
Here's what I did on the transportation questions and what I envision a Community Listener would do: listen, learn how governmental entities function (or not function), take action, and encourage residents to become more civically engaged (attend public governmental meetings or sit on resident boards).
First, I jumped on the internet to learn what I could about the governmental entities including when and where they meet. Then I attended those meetings, presented residents' questions, and passed back that information to residents.
1) Wouldn't it be less expensive to run vans instead of buses carrying only one or two people?
2) Why does it take a 3-hour bus ride to get from the University of Washington-Tacoma campus to my home (about) six miles away and via Lakewood with me taking only one stop to drop off my child at daycare?
BASIC READING / INTERNET – I learned that there are four bodies related to transportation:
1) Pierce Transit (the public can sign in to speak on off-agenda topics at the beginning of these meetings),
2) Community Transportation Advisory Group (of Pierce Transit – the public can participate in these meetings),
3) Sound Transit (somehow Pierce Transit is related to Sound Transit), and
4) Citizen Oversight Panel (of Sound Transit – the public is not allowed to participate in these meetings).
I learned there were three openings for residents to sit on the Community Transportation Advisory Group (CTAG). I called the people who had the transportation questions to encourage them to ask their questions at the next CTAG meeting. I suggested that they join CTAG to be heard more often. The residents said they were unavailable to attend the upcoming meetings or join CTAG.
Here's what happened at the four governmental public meetings:
PIERCE TRANSIT (PT) – meets 2nd Mondays at 4:00 p.m. – Some of the city and county elected officials in Pierce County are selected (I am not sure how) to sit on the PT board. (The meeting time seems kind of inconvenient for most people who work, especially if they have to rely on the bus system to take them home after the meeting. PT's service might improve overnight if the board members had to take PT to get to and from their meetings.)
PT board recently changed their public meetings to include public testimony at the beginning (probably so you can go home after you've said what you need to say and not stay for the entire meeting). The board discussed allowing people to make an additional comment if directly related to an item on that evening's agenda.
I asked the two questions (above) at the public meeting and was immediately swished into the hallway to speak with Pierce Transit's Government Relations Officer (GRO) who answered residents' questions. Initially it felt as if they were trying to get rid of me for some reason but then I realized that it was a real honor – the board had dedicated a live person to answer residents' real questions. I furiously took notes while trying to make sense of the ton of information he was giving me in relation to the questions. I do not guarantee exact numbers in my report to you – the GRO did not have exact numbers at his fingertips. Call Pierce Transit (see, I'm trying to get you engaged) or let me know if you would like exact numbers.
The Government Relations Officer gave me an overview of PT before addressing your specific questions:
– He first seemed to blame the voters for turning down the 2012 tax package as the reason for low bus service. That troubled me so I told him that maybe people voted down the package because they felt they weren't getting their transportation tax dollars' worth.
– 45% of Pierce County does not have any access to transit. (I am not sure if that is land or population size.)
– Services hours were cut 27% while the revenues were only down by 18% (70% sales tax dependent). That seems as if service hours were cut disproportionately to punish voters or PT users.
– Service hours were cut from 622,000 in 2009 down to 427,000 in 2014 (that's a 31% cut using the off-the-top-of-the-GRO-head numbers) and revenue was cut from $77 million (in 2010 / 2011?) down to the $63 million we were using in 2014.
– Service hours in transportation are not expected to increase in the next 6 years. Tax collections are not expected to improve.
– Some (or all?) services in East Pierce were eliminated and buses that ran every 30 minutes now run every 60 minutes.
– PT union members have had no raise in 3 years, PT employees without contracts haven't received a raise in 6 years, and whole levels of PT management were cut.
– 10% of the PT budget is spent on compressed natural gas (CNG) and 90% of PT's fleet is run on CNG (currently $0.20 / gallon) while the rest of the fleet uses diesel. (To their credit, this seems like smart budgeting.)
Considering the questions, the GRO asked me to provide specific bus route numbers to address specific issues:
– One resident gave me the bus numbers for the three-hour trip but I haven't heard back from the GRO yet.
– The other resident did not know the low ridership bus route number. The GRO explained that some buses run “spaghetti routes”: a few people board a bus route, the bus changes to a new bus route number with increased ridership, and then the bus changes to another route number with ridership drastically decreasing again. While it may be cheaper to purchase and operate a van than a bus, the bulk of an organization's cost is in salaries.
Resident Feedback: I relayed the information I acquired to the people who asked the original questions and they had no follow up questions.
CITIZEN OVERSIGHT PANEL (CTO of SOUND TRANSIT) – meets 1st and 3rd Thursdays from 8:30 to 11:00 a.m. – (I found it troubling that no one from the audience was allowed to speak.)
There were two presentations given – one on the Sound Transit (ST) Light Rail system in the south end, the other on the Orca card payment kiosks. It seems that Sound Transit's Light Rail will never be able to connect to Tacoma's Light Link Rail system because the voltages are different. The presenter showed a map of proposed new South King County stations and some pros and cons of some sites.
COMMUNITY TRANSPORTATION ADVISORY GROUP (CTAG of PIERCE TRANSIT) – meets 3rd Thursdays at 5:30 pm – There were three CTAG members present, three or four PT employees, two community members, and two applicants for the three open CTAG seats. Community members are allowed and encouraged to speak during this meeting.
– CTAG members discussed improving service on Bus Route #1.
– I told the CTAG attendees that the first words out of the GRO's mouth seemed to blame the voters for the transportation predicament. (No offense GRO.)
– I learned that two Congressional representatives would be visiting PT in the upcoming week so I decided to escalate the questions to residents' Congressional representative.
– I told CTAG my contrasting experiences between greater Boston's and Tacoma's rush hour public transportation commute. (Population and land area are nearly the same – assuming information I uncovered is accurate and comparable.):
1) In Boston, a bus stopped every 30 minutes to take me to the subway. In Tacoma, a bus runs every 60 minutes.
2) In Boston, subway trains to downtown Boston have six cars leaving every 10 minutes. Tacoma's Light Link Rail trains have two small cars leaving every 10 minutes.
3) In Boston, if I missed the first bus I could calmly walk a short distance to catch either the commuter rail or another bus or walk to the subway stop. In Tacoma, I had to wait 60 minutes for the next bus.
CTAG meeting minutes were not posted on the PT website three months later. I stopped looking. (Could this be another small example why people feel their government is not responsive?)
SOUND TRANSIT (ST) – meets 4th Thursdays from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. – I didn’t ask any questions as I was unsure of the connection between ST and PT. I heard some public comments but couldn't figure out how they related to services.
GENERAL READING – Tacoma was seeking millions of federal dollars to expand the Light Link Rail.
Questions I have are: Who are the actual people or agency bodies who will make those decisions? Where is true resident input? How many people will the Light Link Rail extension serve when the bulk of Tacoma's population may not have transportation to get to the Light Link?
ELECTED OFFICIALS – I spoke to the residents' other electeds to communicate the residents' questions. Here are the results:
– Tacoma City Councilor (by district) – No response. (Is this another reason why people might feel their government doesn't care about them?)
– Two state representatives:
1) One state representative asked me how I obtained the phone number I used. (The Pierce County Auditor Election's website listed contact information for elected, and appointed, officials in Pierce County.) I'm not sure what troubled me more, that an “incorrect” phone number was posted or that I seem to have been the only person to have contacted him through that number. This state representative blamed the other major political party for not passing “the transportation bill” this legislative session (2014). When I pressed him for specific information, he said the bill included funding for PT, and the other political party did not want to usurp the voters of Pierce County who had already voted down their own transportation tax package.
2) The other state representative has not returned my telephone call.
– State senator – The senator also blamed the other political party for not passing the transportation bill. I had a hard time figuring out what he was really saying as it related to the questions. I think he was trying to say our density was not the same as Boston's. He mentioned incentives to carpool, transit authority's management structure, and a failure to manage growth (urban sprawl?). He agreed with residents' concerns.
– Congressional representative – I spoke with the transportation specialist on staff and relayed the residents' issues using my Boston and Tacoma commuting experiences as points of reference. The office seemed shocked to learn that Tacoma and ST Light Links will never connect because of the voltage differences (as mentioned at the Sound Transit Citizen Review Oversight Panel meeting).
Copyright 2016 Deb Blakeslee